The heavy rains that drenched parts of Texas over the last few weeks have been a curse and a blessing all wrapped into one.
Rainfall totals vary with who you talk to. Some areas of eastern Texas saw close to 20 inches during the first three weeks of May and parts of South Texas logged as much as 15 inches since early April.
Likewise, some creeks and rivers swelled beyond their banks, resulting in flooding issues for some homeowners and businesses while wrecking roadways, taking out fences and causing a host of other problems along the way.
Although the rain created a muddy, sloppy mess in lots of places, many lakes and stock tanks are now at or above full capacity, fields are green and the woods are ripe with goodies to benefit all kinds of wildlife.
I recently caught up with a few wildlife and fisheries biologists get their take on how all the moisture might impact everything from bucks to bass, turkeys and quail. Here’s what they had to say:
Alan Cain heads up the white-tailed deer program for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Cain has recorded more than 11 inches of rain at his home in Atascosa County and says parts of the region as far south as Cotulla tallied 15 inches more, much of it coming in the last two weeks.
The biologist believes things are looking up for wildlife in many parts of the state. The picture appears especially rosy in the Brush Country, where some of Texas’ biggest whitetail bucks are taken by hunters each year.
“We haven’t seen spring rains like this in years,” Cain said. “I’ve visited with some landowners who finally received enough rain to fill their stock tanks to the point water is running around the spillways. They are pretty happy.”
Cain says spring rains are always a huge benefit to deer, mainly because the moisture fuels the growth of lush habitat at a critical time.
“This sort of precipitation accelerates new growth on the native plants, both forbs and shrubs preferred by deer, resulting in dramatic improvements in habitat conditions in most parts of the state,” he said. “The copious amounts of rain this spring have also helped to replenish soil moisture. That will be critical to maintain habitat conditions later into the summer when temperatures heat up.”
All of this adds up to excellent nutrition to support good body conditions, fawn production and spur antler growth. Cain believes mature bucks will grow some exceptionally large antlers this summer and that fawn production/recruitment will be average to above in many areas. Does that are in good physical condition when fawns hit the ground will produce plenty of milk to nurse their little ones over the hump.
“Antler quality is on track to be above average this year with the recent improvement in range conditions,” he said. “Aside from the nutritional aspect, grass cover has or will be improving quickly resulting in good fawning cover, too. It’s like a jungle out there.”
Cain said some landowners in the Pineywoods and Post Oak may be concerned that heavy rains and localized flooding could result in significant fawn mortalities, but that’s not likely to be an issue since we are just now getting into the early stages of the fawning season.
While there may already be a few East Texas fawns on the ground from early May, Cain says the majority are born in late in month and into early June.
“Past research on breeding chronology indicates that 90 percent of fawns are on the ground between June 19 and June 29 in most of East Texas,” he said. “In South Texas fawns won’t be hitting the ground until late June and into mid-July. Fawns in the central and southern parts of the state should be born into some of the best conditions seen in a long time.”
Cain did point out that any additional flooding in coming weeks could hamper fawn production, especially if it happens in East Texas where the ground is already saturated and water is standing in lots of places.
“It could displace some deer and result in some fawn mortalities if we have any additional flood events over the next 2-3 weeks,” he said. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen and most of the fawns will start hitting the ground just in time for conditions to dry out a bit. If that’s the case, we’ll be in really good shape.”
Cain expects nesting conditions for bobwhite quail to be “though the roof” in South Texas.
“Areas that were pretty dry before these last rain events weren’t growing much grass at all, but that’s changed over the last couple of months,” he said. “The quail have some of the best nesting cover they’ve had in a while. Plus, there are insects everywhere. There should be plenty for them to eat if they are able to pull off some successful nesting attempts later this spring and summer.”
Things aren’t looking quite as favorable for the dapper game birds in the Cross Timbers, Rolling Plains and Panhandle regions, where rainfall has been spotty and habitat has been slow to rebound from the February freeze in some areas.
Wildlife biologist Dana Wright of Paducah in Cottle County said she has gotten only an inch of rain over the last month, whereas District 3 leader Kevin Mote in May near Brownwood saw about seven inches.
Technical guidance biologist Dean Marquardt of Granbury said 3-10 inches of rain fell across the western edge of the Cross Timbers and eastern Rolling Plains over the last month to supplement welcomed shots of moisture from earlier in the year. Likewise, critical nesting habitat has bounced back fairly well across some of state’s premier bobwhite country.
The downside, Marquardt said, is that quail numbers were low coming into the spring breeding season and many hens were already in the middle of their first nesting attempts when the bottom dropped out of the sky.
“The rain may have been a curse and a blessing at the same time,” he said. “The curse is the birds were already incubating eggs when the big rains came. Some of the nests may have gotten washed out, or the female may have had to leave the eggs because of high water.
“The blessing is there will be plenty of insects on the ground and lots of cover when the first hatch happens in early June,” Marquardt added. “It may not equate to a large scale boom in numbers because of the low carry over from winter, but the opportunity is there to have a good first hatch. If they re-nest, they’ll have conditions for the second and third rounds.”
TPWD wild turkey program leader Jason Hardin says rain is always a welcomed event across Rio Grande wild turkey range.
“A lot of wild turkeys didn’t get into breeding condition early due to the dry conditions,” he said. “That will have a greater impact on recruitment this summer than the more recent rain events.”
Eastern wild turkeys are a different story. According to Hardin, ground-nesting eastern hens and young poults frequently experience increased losses due to predation in wet weather. Wet feathers make the birds easier for predators to sniff out.
“Not a lot of eastern nests are lost to flooding as most hens nest in uplands, but there will probably be a few,” he said. “However, it is probably a wash when you consider the higher number of nests normally lost each year to mowing and haying practices. The rain will delay those mowing and haying practices and hopefully allow a few more hens to successfully pull off a nest attempt before haying or recreational mowing practices can return to the fields.”
Fisheries: High and Lows
Many Texas lakes are now at full capacity or well above due to the recent rains. According to TPWD fisheries biologist Todd Driscoll, a springtime rise in water level is always beneficial for bass and sunfish populations because it creates a wealth of cover where little fish can hide from big ones.
“The increase in flooded cover gives all the recently hatched bass fry, fingerlings and sunfish more places to hide to escape predation and increase recruitment rates,” he said. “Year class strength should be tremendous this year. A few years down the road that will mean more keeper size fish for anglers to catch. Any lake that saw a significant rise will benefit.”
The downside to high water is it often means muddy water. According to Driscoll, extended periods of high, dirty water can spell trouble for lakes that have a lot submerged vegetation like hydrilla or milfoil, because it blocks out the critical sunlight the vegetation needs to grow.”
“On a lake the Sam Rayburn high water can even kill some semi-terrestrial plants like willows, buttonbush (buck brush) and water oaks if it stays high for a significant amount of time,” he said. “Pine trees also can be impacted.”
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.
CWD discovered at more Texas deer breeding facilities
From TPWD Reports
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been discovered in deer breeding facilities in both Matagorda and Mason counties, according recent reports from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It marks the first positive detection of the disease in these counties.
An epidemiological investigation found that both deer breeding facilities had received deer from a Uvalde County premises where CWD was found on March 29. Postmortem tissues samples were submitted by the permitted deer breeders to assist the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) with the epidemiological investigation. The National Veterinary Services Laboratory (NVSL) in Ames, Iowa, has since confirmed CWD in those tissue samples.
TPWD and TAHC officials have taken immediate action to secure all cervids at the Matagorda County and Mason County deer breeding facilities and plan to conduct additional investigations for CWD.
Breeding facilities and release sites that have received deer from these operations or shipped deer to these facilities during the last five years have been instructed by TPWD not to move or release deer at this time.
On March 31, TPWD and TAHC reported two CWD confirmations at breeding operations in Hunt and Uvalde counties. The Hunt facility underwent further DNA testing to confirm animal identification and origin, and on May 12 the DNA test results confirmed the deer’s connection to the premises.
“Regrettably, the gravity of this situation continues to mount with these new CWD positive discoveries, as well as with the full understanding of just how many other facilities and release sites across Texas were connected to the CWD positive sites in Uvalde and Hunt Counties,” said Carter Smith, Executive Director of TPWD. “Along with our partners at the Texas Animal Health Commission, we will continue to exercise great diligence and urgency with this ongoing investigation. Accelerating the testing at other exposed facilities will be critical in ensuring we are doing all we can to arrest the further spread of this disease, which poses great risks to our native deer populations, both captive and free-ranging alike.”
TPWD and TAHC continue to work together to determine the extent of the disease within all the affected facilities and evaluate risks to Texas’ free ranging deer populations. Quick detection of CWD can help mitigate the spread of the disease.