Serving Kerr County with a Conscience

WHEN WILL TX PARKS & WILDLIFE STEP IN TO SAVE THE HILL COUNTRY’S WHITETAIL?

By Ann White for Kerr County Conscience


What I want to know is, since Texas Parks and Wildlife is supposed to be the agency that protects whitetail deer (they are owned by the state of Texas), when are they going to start protecting them? Anyone who owns property in this area should be able to see the writing on the wall: the day will come when there are no more whitetails in the Hill Country.

Like most greenhorns who move to Texas and buy a “ranch”--for us, 150 acres NE of Kerrville-- the realtor showed us a charming piece of land, with rolling hills, green grass dotted with live flowers, and majestic live oaks. All it lacked was bluebonnets to complete our art-gallery image of how beautiful it would be to live here.

When we saw our future ranch, it was lucky for the realtor that our viewing happened to be between droughts. We didn’t know then that the grass was momentary, that a development would be planned that would take all of our water, that all of our live oaks would eventually be wiped out by oak wilt, that we would soon succumb to “cedar fever,” and that our taxes would skyrocket. These are subjects for future articles! Now, in mid-winter and facing yet another drought, we are beginning to believe that perhaps the realtor’s greatest omission in his sales pitch was not any of the above, but his failure to mention a very serious problem facing all landowners—invasive species depredation.

One of the charms of our land was watching the wildlife, and for the first few years we were green enough to still exclaim over the elegant, plump, whitetail deer watching us from the meadow. Then one fall, some larger “deer” began to appear. These “deer” were often twice the size of our whitetails, and were much more aggressive. When cold weather came and forage for our whitetails was scarce, we began to put out a little alfalfa, a little protein, to help them make it through the winter. After all, someone had told us that whitetail live within 5 miles of the place where they were born, so these were OUR whitetail, and we felt responsible for them. But soon our deer began to look thinner and thinner and we started to find fawns, dead from starvation and exposure, on our road. We started watching our feeders.

Yes, all you Texas “Natives” out there already know about the escaped exotic, the axis, and the devastation they cause to land and native whitetails. But we didn’t know this, and no one told us. After a little research, we learned that “there could be over a million free-ranging exotics in the Hill Country alone” (Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine, April 2007, page 38-39.) We discovered that axis reproduce at a much faster rate than whitetails (like rabbits!), and that they can eat grass, which whitetails cannot. So, after eating all of the whitetails’ traditional forage, they can switch to eating grass—therefore competing with cattle. And axis totally, in the slang of today, “kick ass” when it comes to feeding competition with whitetails. They will aggressively attack whitetails and run them away from the feeders, every time.

Soon, to our great consternation, we had HUNDREDS of axis exotics running roughshod on our land, eating everything in sight, and starving our native whitetail population. (Not only do they compete with whitetails--they also compete with all native wildlife that forages on rangeland here.) As our whitetails got skinnier, much teeth-gnashing followed. What was the solution?

Method #1: TRAPPING

We discovered that there IS no easy solution. Someone came to us with the idea of “trapping.” This involves draping a large, heavy net on poles, putting feed under it, then adventurous guys watch from a distance and when there are a lot of axis under it, “BOOM!” they let off a charge, the net falls, and—Voila!—they grab the axis, tranquilize them, and sell them to a ranch that is actually raising these beasts. Sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it? Well, it isn’t. First, it’s not only axis that go under the net to eat—whitetails go under it as well. Anyone who has observed the fragility of fawns’ legs and the whitetails’ overall propensity to be easily damaged can imagine the carnage that takes place after a heavy net falls on a whitetail and it struggles to free itself. How many whitetail deer are killed or mortally hurt in trapping? No one knows, because of course the trappers don’t talk about this—and the Game Warden usually isn’t around at these “drops”— or the landowner, either.

Trapping accidents can be fatal for whitetail deer, and there's no regulations protecting our native deer population.

It wasn’t until later, after watching whitetail for some time, that we began to speculate about whitetail damage during trapping. But then one spring an incident occurred that stopped trapping for good at our ranch. It was a hot spring. The net had been hung, and the feed put out. Then we had one of those brief, but intense, Texas thunderstorms and a quick shower. The heavy rope net became wet, and sagged. The rack of a large whitetail buck snagged the sagging net, pulling it down over about 14 other whitetail. All this happened, and there was no one around. That afternoon, the sun came back out, and the temperature reached a steamy 100 degrees. Taking my early evening walk, I approached the net and was appalled by the sight of the tortured, mutilated animals entangled there. This experience put an end to “trapping” on our ranch.

Method #2: TRANQUILIZING

Another friend suggested someone who came out and shot tranquilizer darts into the axis, then gathered them up and sold them, giving the ranch owner a small stipend. I discovered that there were also problems with this method:
  • The animals don’t drop immediately, and they have to be followed through often rough terrain. If there are holes in the fences, there’s a good chance that the animal will escape onto adjoining property and then cannot be retrieved. And there’s always the chance that the tranquilizing guys won’t be able to find the animal after they have shot it.
  • The men that do this focus on trophy animals or well-fed, healthy animals that will contribute to another ranch’s breeding stock. They don’t want ALL of the animals.
  • It takes time and effort for someone to tranquilize these animals, and it is hard work. The only way it pays is if there is a large population of trophy animals. Otherwise, the time consumed is just not cost efficient.


Since our goal was not necessarily to sell the animals and make money, but to GET RID OF ALL OF THE AXIS—to try to preserve the whitetails and our habitat--neither trapping nor tranquilizing were effective methods of control. At the same time that a few axis are being trapped and tranquilized (the axis soon know about the net and won’t go under it), mother axis are cheerfully having many, many more babies!


Method #3: HUNTING

As soon as we started talking to our friends about our axis problem, we were besieged by calls from people who wanted to come onto our land and “hunt” axis. Most landowners are particular about who they let on their land with a gun. Although sparsely populated, the area around us has other homes and businesses—easily within shooting distance. We have cattle roaming the entire acreage. We have farm buildings and parked vehicles. We had grudgingly come to the conclusion that the only way to rid ourselves of the axis scourge was to shoot them—before they starved. Then we planned on reinforcing all the fences and in the future planned to keep all deer, including whitetail, completely off of the property. We alienated about half of our acquaintances by picking one close friend whom we knew well, and knew that he was responsible enough to shoot on our property. One woman said to me, “Why won’t you let me hunt on your property?” My response was: “Why do you want to hunt?” Her reply: “For the sport.” I explained to her that hunting here was not for “sport,” that there was no “sport” involved. The animals were starving. They could be shot from the front porch. This was exactly the type of person that we didn’t want on the property: anyone infected with “buck fever.” We didn’t want anyone who was a poor marksman, or who would shoot without a clear shot, and wound the animal, and therefore extend its suffering. Exterminating the axis was a nasty, brutal, bloody, job. It had to be done, but that didn’t mean that we liked it.

Hunting has not worked, either. Our friend has been diligent and careful. But how many axis can one person shoot and give away? After shooting about 15, the job of gutting them became an interminable chore. Let’s face it; everyone likes the idea of walking to their freezer and pulling out an axis steak for dinner. But when it comes to having to gut, skin, and cut up a 500-pound animal—this is a job reserved for the real die-hards, the non-faint-at-heart. How many freezers can one person own? Now we are beginning to feel guilty about burdening our friend with this chore. On any given afternoon, he comes and shoots and fixes the fences—and a few hours later, by the time we put feed out for the whitetails, there are 50 axis that appear from nowhere and have it all eaten in 15 minutes. It’s hopeless!

We are beginning to resign ourselves to the fact that we can’t feed the whitetails without the axis stealing the feed—so we are going to be seeing our whitetails starve this winter, and our land totally devastated. While this is going on at our personal, micro-cosmic level, we are imagining what is occurring at the 2000-acre ranches. It’s a simple fact: the State of Texas needs to step in NOW and pass regulations dealing with the scourge of escaped exotic animals. These animals are devastating our state’s natural habitat, and the small, private landowner is simply not equipped to deal with the problem. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing that Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace who introduced these animals into Texas in the 1930s, has passed on—otherwise, he just might get sued.



ANN WHITE can be reached by email at our web site, kerrcconscience@aol.com. You are also welcome to leave a comment on this blog.

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