Thanks to some very timely rains...
Deer hunting goes on at Chaparral after fire
From ‘moonscape’ to ‘sea of grass’
After a wildfire in March consumed 95 percent of the Chaparral Wildlife Management Area southwest of San Antonio, there was concern hunting might have to be curtailed to allow whitetails to rebound.
Nature, however, came to the rescue, said David Synatzske, the Chaparral’s manager.
“The deer are probably in better condition than they were last year,” he said. “Anyone who has been on the place is amazed by how fast the country came back. After the fire, there were places that looked like a moonscape. Now it’s a sea of grass everywhere you look.”
A study done by Synatzske and the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville found no evidence of a die-off of whitetails after the fire. In fact, circumstances conspired to not only allow them to maintain their health but, in most cases, to thrive.
For all its destructiveness, the wildfire made one food source readily available to whitetails: prickly pear cactus. The fire burned off the plant’s spines. “We found in the study that the deer were able to sustain their body condition by consuming the prickly pear,” Synatzske said. “Basically, it’s all they had. It’s not a good protein source. It’s high in carbohydrates, a high-energy food, which is exactly what they needed after the fire.”
Thanks to a fortuitous spring rain, grass and forbs soon returned and filled out the deer’s diet, said David Hewitt, who holds the Stuart W. Stedman Chair for White-tailed Deer Research at Kleberg. “The grass began sprouting, and it was high-quality stuff, as far as nutrition,” said Hewitt, who supervised the Chaparral study. “They hit it hard for two weeks to a month and then the forbs came back and the cactus dropped out of their diet. Then some of the plants that had been top-killed grew back.”
Hewitt said students conducting the study saw no deer in poor physical condition. Does harvested for the study demonstrated no signs of abnormal pregnancies. In times of severe physical stress, for example, a doe can absorb a fetus.
Helicopter surveys at Chaparral in late summer showed a 40-percent ratio of fawns to does. While that number was below the previous year, it was still outstanding, Synatzske said. “That’s actually more like 60 per cent in a regular year,” he said. “Last year was one of the best years we’ve had, and there are a lot of young does that really can’t be expected to contribute to the population this year.” Synatzske said antler development is better than last year.
Despite the unexpected turn around, it was still a close call. If it hadn’t rained when it did, the story at Chaparral might have been far different, Synatzske said. “We’d be harvesting a lot of deer right now trying to enable the habitat to sustain what’s there,” he said. “Because of the rain, we’ll have better habitat next year and the next. We’ll be able to carry more deer than before. The timing of the rain was perfect. We couldn’t have planned it any better.”