HOUSTON — In a 30-mile area of the Texas Panhandle, biologists found 76 white-tailed deer – but zero babies. Not far away, they located only three quail on a stretch of road where they would see 15 in a normal year. In South Texas, a biologist reports a lack of water on some ranches is "killing deer like flies" and says he discovered more than 20 dead adult deer on one ranch.
And this is only the first glimpse at the harm one of the worst droughts in Texas history is causing to the state's wildlife.
The Associated Press obtained preliminary data from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department that comes from statewide wildlife surveys the agency performs annually of deer, prong-horned antelope, quail, turkey and other animals. The data has not yet been compiled into a statewide overview, but so far confirms scientists' suspicions that the drought has hampered wildlife reproduction.
"It's having a major impact on a lot of the critters," said Trey Barron, a regulatory biologist in Amarillo for the parks and wildlife department. "If the drought continues for much longer, we will start seeing impacts on the adult population."
Deer, antelope and quail historically bounce back after severe weather, but the longer it lasts the more difficult that becomes.
And the Lone Star State no longer has the millions of acres of undisturbed habitat it once did, biologists say. Today, cities, towns, ranches, farms, electrical lines, fences, highways and other human interventions have fragmented the landscape, making it more difficult for animals to recover from a devastating drought.
Take bobwhite quail – a round, 10-inch long game bird. Their numbers are down in nearly every part of the state, except for one stretch of South Texas where Gulf Coast humidity provided enough moisture for them to forage and nest.
But in the northeastern Panhandle and north-central Texas, the quail numbers are at record lows, with only five counted in some areas, compared to 21 usually. In the Hill Country, surveyors found one quail in a 20-mile radius, compared to an average of more than five. And scaled quail in far West Texas – the Trans Pecos region – are down to six compared to an average of more than 16.
"We're seeing a total lack of reproduction by quail," said Robert Perez, the game bird program leader for Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Quail are generally resilient, Perez said, and reproduce quickly. The species has recovered from previous droughts, including the historic dry spell that swept through the state in the 1950s and has been the benchmark since then for drought and water issues.
Perez notes, however, that quail no longer have as many wide-open spaces to call home as they did in the mid-20th century. Now, a drought can completely wipe out the bird in some places, such as around Dallas and Houston where the population has been declining for decades.
The drought could be especially devastating for antelope. In the Trans-Pecos area, the animals have been struggling with a parasite that has significantly reduced their reproduction and survival for several years, biologists said. The drought could be a harsh blow to that population.
Barron said antelopes in his northeastern Panhandle region were surveyed in June and July. Of 100 does, researchers are only seeing about 16 fawns – compared to an average of 35 during the past five years. He now fears for the adult antelope, deer and mule deer.
"Bucks ... use large amounts of energy during the rut – breeding season – and require an adequate food supply in order for them to recover after the rut is over," Barron said in an email. "Some bucks may not recover this year if it remains dry. The does are already in survival mode and that is why we have the poor fawn crops. If the drought continues, some will likely not survive through next summer."
Alan Cain, the agency's white-tailed deer program leader, gathers and analyzes statewide information to get an idea of how the 4 million deer are faring. Even before seeing all the data, he knows reproduction is down, though deer on ranches where the land has been properly managed and there is adequate surface water are doing better.
In some parts of the state, such as the Hill Country, even ash juniper – a drought resistant brush – is dying, so deer are struggling to find food. An email Cain received from a biologist in South Texas says that in some areas "deer are dying left and right," and on ranches where surface water has disappeared the lack of water is "killing deer like flies."
In a chunk of Southeast and Central Texas, fawn crops are down to about a 27 percent reproduction rate, with only 66 fawns counted for 244 does.
Cain believes the deer will recover eventually, though he expects there will be fewer bucks in about five or six years due to the low reproduction during the drought.
Right now, the bigger concern is adult bucks and does dying.
"It's probably going to happen and then if it continues dry through next spring ... animal production quality is going to be down," Cain said, explaining that does may miscarry or fail to produce enough milk to feed their fawns. In the worst cases, they may abandon their young.
John Baccus, a retired wildlife biologist at Texas State University in San Marcos, believes this is already happening. He noted that shortly after the birthing season, he saw some does with twins. But within days, they returned to his backyard with either one or no fawns, a sign of high mortality.
"It's such a convoluted, complex situation that we're looking at here: climate and the physiology of animals and the change in the food sources and water resources and then human interference," Baccus said. "It may be a few years before we know what this drought has caused."