June 28, 2022
By Gordon Whittington
In the third-ever issue of North American Whitetail, published in early 1983, contained a homage to my homeland. “Hill Country Texas: America’s Whitetail Mecca” read the feature’s title, and in it I proudly pointed out that this region — several million acres of dry, rocky ranchland lying west of Austin and north of San Antonio — was something special. At the time, roughly 10 percent of all the world population lived in or near those hills. It was the center of the whitetail universe, and it was where I still lived.
I wasn’t the only one extolling the region. For years, such respected writers as Byron Dalrymple, John Wootters, Russell Tinsley and Bob Brister had been calling it paradise for deer hunters. But I’m sure many readers took the stories as tall tales. Almost nowhere else in the whitetail’s range had even 25 deer per square mile, as much of North America was still in herd restoration mode. The Hill Country had nearly 50 deer per square mile. And that frankly was conservative. If you were in the right place, the number was easily double that many, if not triple. Yes, broad areas actually had well in excess of 100 deer per square mile.
Common sense suggests such densities weren’t ideal, especially on rocky, uncultivated rangeland frequently plagued by drought. Sooner or later, the situation would prove unsustainable. And that wasn’t even taking into account the fact that explosive human population growth was encroaching on the region. At some point, logic held, so much habitat would be eliminated by people that a major herd collapse was practically inevitable.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this whitetail catastrophe: It never happened. In fact, in comparison to when NAW began, it can be argued that hunting in the Hill Country is better than ever. It’s different from back then, but in a great way.
Most likely the Hill Country once had fewer deer. Well into the 19th century, there was far more grass than woody cover. But intensive livestock grazing eventually removed so much of the native grass that juniper, mesquite and inland live oak began to spread. Over time, suppression of wildfire also aided the transition into habitat better suited to whitetails.
Fast-forward the better part of a century, and the Hill Country’s excellent deer numbers were in sharp contrast to those of most other places. In the 1940s, many other states still hadn’t reopened their seasons after having lost virtually all their deer to market hunting, poaching and/or habitat decline. In Central Texas, meanwhile, hunting had never ended.
Of course, every deer population has its own issues. In the Hill Country, a deep and lengthy regional drought in the 1950s took a huge toll on all wildlife and hampered further growth in deer numbers. The voracious larvae of native screwworm flies also continued to prey heavily on fawns, further limiting recruitment.
Fortunately, the rains returned. And with the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally bringing screwworms under control, the stage was set for another whitetail baby boom. So by the time I began hunting the Hill Country as a kid in the early 1960s, the region was simply crawling with deer. They weren’t big, but they were incredibly abundant. And two decades later, at the time of NAW’s founding, the population was still roughly as high.
Not surprisingly, deer coolers were full for much of the 2-month gun season. The bulk of the harvest was bucks, the majority of them young. Of course, this was before many hunters cared about trophies, even in Texas. The Hill Country was arguably a “deer factory” long before we started using that term here in the magazine or on NAW TV.
Counting the Herd
Trail cameras have simplified the process of counting free-ranging deer and estimating buck:doe ratio, age structure and fawn crop. But early on, biologists had to rely strictly on other methods. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department personnel used a combination of aircraft reconnaissance, vehicle spotlight surveys and walking what were known as “Hahn lines” (specific transects through deer habitat) to gauge herd size and health.
Of course, no census of free-ranging wildlife is ever dead on. But by regularly conducting surveys of the same locations at the same time of year (usually October), biologists could compile enough data to spot broad trends and get decent estimates of the deer population and its makeup.
Forty years ago, Texas population data were gathered and maintained on a county-by-county basis. That no longer is the case. TPWD now operates with a “deer management unit” model. These DMUs are “regions of similar soils, vegetation, land uses and deer population demographics,” notes Mike Miller, a TPWD biologist whose area includes the Hill Country.
This system makes more sense than operating along county lines. However, the changeover complicates population data comparisons throughout the whole of NAW’s 40-year history. As for harvest data, TPWD has never mandated checking in kills. However, agency biologists occasionally drop in on deer coolers to count, age and weigh animals recently harvested.
An Evolving World
As the years passed, people just kept flooding into the Hill Country. The growth was especially rapid around Austin, a key city in the technology revolution. New neighborhoods were springing up, and many square miles of what had been ranchland turned into subdivisions. Large ranches were carved into several pieces or even “ranchettes” of a few acres each. And this wave of people occurred despite a scarcity of water and the constant threat of that next major drought. Feral hog numbers increased as well, further pressuring the habitat and native wildlife.
Despite these gloomy trends, the region has remained a whitetail hotspot. Our big fear we had back then — that people might simply displace deer from the outskirts of Austin and San Antonio — now seems unwarranted. In fact, some places that had few if any deer 40 years ago now have them in spades.
One such location is Westlake Hills, a small city towering over Austin from the rim of the Edwards Plateau. Retired TPWD biologist Trey Carpenter, who grew up there before heading off to college and then starting his career with the agency in the 1980s, witnessed
Westlake’s transition for himself. “When I was a kid, we roamed all over that area, and there weren’t any deer,” Carpenter notes. “Only after I started working as a state biologist did they start to show up around there. Now there are a lot of them in those neighborhoods.”
A similar deer boom has occurred in Lakeway, an exurb several miles northwest of Austin, and Hill Country Village, a small city just north of San Antonio. Even as these and other affluent areas grew, so did whitetail numbers. We didn’t really know it when NAW began, but lush landscapes next to unhunted green spaces suit whitetails just fine.
In Carpenter’s view, positive changes in the region’s deer scene have largely been due to three factors, in no particular order: the advent of the trail camera; a rise in predators; and a general shift in hunter interest toward quality over quantity.
“Not all of the Hill Country has as many deer as it did back years ago,” he says. “Some of that is because there now are more coyotes than there used to be. In many other cases, people also are making much more of an effort to control the numbers through doe harvest.
“I’ve measured Boone & Crockett bucks from several of these counties,” the biologist continues. “And body weights are much better than they were years ago. Now on places that are well managed, with good nutrition, we’re getting bucks that field-dress 125 to 145 pounds.”
Those weights perhaps won’t impress anyone from outside the region. But when I was in school, for any buck to dress out at 100 pounds was news. Most came in at under 90. So while there now are fewer deer, on average they’re bigger. Perhaps there are just as many pounds of venison out there today as in the “glory days” of higher densities. Supplemental feeding and managing for better herd health in general have made a real difference.
As has happened elsewhere, trail cameras helped to steer this mindset shift. Suddenly realizing there were a few mature bucks out there made it easier for Hill Country hunters to stop killing as many young ones. Hunting pressure has become progressively more selective and has swung heavily toward eliminating excess does. The result is that buck age and size average much better than when I was a kid roaming those hills.
“We’ve gone from around 70 percent bucks age 2 1/2 or younger to 80 percent 3 1/2 or older,” says Carpenter, who now works with many landowners on a consulting basis. And it’s interesting that the selectivity extends to archers, who now make up a large percentage of the region’s hunting force. As the average parcel size has decreased, many former rifle-only hunters have taken up the bow.
So it appears the Hill Country remains a whitetail success story. In fact, it’s one of the best ever told. Of course, no story of a whitetail population is ever fully told; there’s always an uncertain future yet to be revealed.
“I think those high deer populations in areas in and around Austin, San Antonio and the smaller cities will fade in time,” says former TPWD Deer Program Leader Horace Gore, who has spent decades observing whitetail trends across the state. “But it might be another 40 years.”
It’s a cliche to suggest that only time will tell. But that’s undoubtedly the surest answer.