Okay, I’ll admit, the title of this article has a degree of embellishment in it that is intended to serve as click bait, as our Facebook friends might say. Is it actually possible to insulate mule deer herds in arid environments, such as the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas, against the extreme pressures that can be delivered by harsh droughts? The answer is yes, to an extent.
Texas is often an overlooked gem in the mule deer hunting world. More known for its white-tailed deer herds, most hunters would be surprised to know that the Lone Star State is also home to roughly 200,000 mule deer. The Trans-Pecos region supports the highest number of muleys in the state, but the Panhandle region has healthy populations scattered about, and then there are pockets of mule deer that are found in the sandy stretches between these two eco-regions. One of the common denominators of these areas of Texas where mule deer are found is that it’s often dry in these locales, with average annual rainfall running from about 9 inches in the Trans-Pecos to roughly 17 inches in some mule deer areas of the Panhandle. Droughts are the norm in these regions.
So, for those mule deer aficionados who are trying to manage for population abundance and antler quality in these dry regions, it begs the question of what we can do to “drought-proof” these mule deer herds? The simple equation to the solution involves water, appropriate grazing practices, predator control and supplemental feed.
As they say, “Just add water.” One of the unique physiological features of desert animals are their ability to metabolize a great deal of their required water from the plants that they eat. However, beyond a shadow of a doubt, available surface water greatly increases habitat suitability for muleys. Water is the most important nutrient for deer, and water helps service all required physiological functions of a deer’s body. Generally speaking, if mule deer have to travel more than a couple of miles between water locations, habitability in those voids will be compromised to some degree. Since rainfall is often scarce in these regions in question, water wells, storage tanks, waterlines, and troughs are the savior. There is no greater tool in the mule deer manager’s toolbox than water.
It’s my opinion that the impact from predators are often the most under-estimated pressure source on mule deer populations across their North American range. With some states having increasingly tightened regulations on predator control over the last few decades, it’s also my opinion that some state agencies conveniently look beyond predation as perhaps the biggest reason why mule deer numbers have suffered in some areas. Further, in Texas’ mule deer regions, you often find multiple predator species that consider mule deer to be tasty table-fare. Coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, black bears and even golden eagles are known to prey on mule deer and scavenge kills, with the first three on that list being of particular significance in Texas. Coyotes and bobcats alone can suppress fawn production immensely. Throw mountain lions into the mix, and you then have a recipe for pressure being placed on adult deer as well. If adequate water is available, my next order of business if I was trying to elevate mule deer numbers would be to control predators. Fortunately, Texas is a friendly state regarding regulations that govern predator control. Steel traps, snares, M44s (regulated cyanide cannisters) and aerial gunning are the most effective means of trying to address these matters. This can either be accomplished through private means or perhaps through assistance from USDA Wildlife Services.
Appropriate Grazing Practices
Cattle and mule deer can peacefully co-exist in some cases. Though there can be some competition for forage between the two, when cattle stocking rates exceed certain thresholds, it’s my opinion that mule deer habitability is occasionally compromised in other ways. When grass and weed cover is not adequate, young fawns are more susceptible to predation, due to lack of hiding cover. Also, seasonal and temporary water locations, whether they be from ephemeral springs or from rainfall run-off, create habitat sweet spots for mule deer, and the longevity of these sweet spots is normally shortened when you have cattle utilizing those waterings. Perhaps the least understood, but most profound impact that cattle can have on mule deer is competition for “space.” Space is one of the four components of habitat for all animals. Compared to some ungulates, mule deer have a relatively narrow tolerance regarding the presence of other ungulates, such as cattle, elk and whitetails. As a rule, the greater the stocking rate of cattle, the more likely that there will be some degree of displacement of mule deer from certain locales within the deer’s home range, and when deer are forced to utilize their home ranges differently, it can have negative consequences on those deer. The habitat component of “space” should not be overlooked while managing any species of wildlife but is rarely considered.
Though supplemental feeding can have a profound impact on elevating herd numbers and antler quality, I will not elaborate to a great degree on this management tool, as it is not what I’d consider to be cost effective for many folks. However, through free-choice feeders, supplemental feeding can help mitigate the roller-coaster effect of forage availability for mule deer in arid environments.
Managing mule deer in these desert regions is not rocket science. Rather, it’s a matter of prioritization and commitment to some basic practices that generally yield predictable results. Some of these practices are not inexpensive and occasionally demand that livestock operations be adapted to accommodate mule deer needs. But, with the spiked increase in mule deer, I suspect that the values of this wildlife resource will continue to shape ranching programs more and more.
For assistance with your wildlife management or commercial hunting needs, contact the private firm of Wildlife Consultants, LLC at (325) 655-0877, owned by veteran wildlife biologists, Greg Simons and Ruben Cantu.