Land Management Workshop for Hill Country Property Owners

The second annual Bennett Land Stewardship Conference is scheduled for April 23-24 at the Inn of the Hills Resort and Conference Center in Kerrville. The conference is funded by the Ruth and Eskel Bennett Endowment and hosted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, said Dr. Larry Redmon, co-chair and Bennett Trust AgriLife Extension specialist. Redmon said the Bennetts posthumously provided an endowment that will support land management and stewardship education in the Edwards Plateau for generations to come. The Bennetts retired to a ranch just outside Dripping Springs and established this endowment by generously gifting a portion of their estate to AgriLife Extension.

“Mr. Bennett loved the Edwards Plateau and left a legacy that will afford landowners and resource managers ongoing opportunities to acquire knowledge and sharpen their skills as responsible stewards of this unique and storied part of Texas,” Redmon said. “The proceeds from the invested endowment will provide unparalleled private sector support for AgriLife Extension educational efforts in the region.”

Cost of the two-day conference is $75 and includes all meals, break refreshments and tour transportation costs. Register online or by calling 979-845-2604.

Dr. Rick Machen, AgriLife Extension livestock specialist from Uvalde, said the conference will include “the best and wisest, accomplished stewards, visionaries and legacy-leavers together as educators for this conference. Those with a passion for natural resource stewardship and a love for the Texas Hill Country will want to be there.” Continue reading

Will White-tailed Deer Suffer from Disease-Carrying Feral Cats?

Feral cats carry a parasite disease that can impact white-tailed deer. Most people do not fear feral cats, although we all know they are a tad bit sketchy in the health department, but this may have hunters thinking twice about those cats roaming around on their hunting properties. A study by researchers at Ohio State University found that feral cats may be responsible for the presence of a dangerous parasite in deer called Toxoplasma gondii.

According to the study, the number of deer infected with the parasite coincided with the number of wild cats in their area. Researchers collected samples from over 400 whitetail deer in the Cleveland, Ohio area and found that almost 60 percent of the animals showed signs of infection. Comparatively, 200 wild cats in the region were tested for the parasite and over 65 percent of the felines were afflicted with the parasite. Coincidence? I think not.

“This study documents the widespread infection of deer populations in northeastern Ohio, most likely resulting from feral cats, and highlights the need for consumers of venison to make absolutely certain that any deer meat planned for consumption is thoroughly and properly cooked,” lead author Gregory Ballash told The Billings Gazette.

Hunters are especially warned to take care in cleaning and cooking deer meat, as the parasite is transmissible to humans. Toxoplasmosis is the leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness in the US. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 60 million people in the United States (about 1 in 5) carry the disease. The Toxoplasma parasite can be suppressed by a strong immune system, but effects may include flu-like symptoms, muscle aches, and in more serious cases, the parasite can even cause eye and brain damage as well as memory loss.

Some animal rights activists contested the study’s findings and argue that other carriers may be responsible for the spread of the disease. Yet the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), an advocacy group for wild birds, is promoting the study as further evidence of the damage caused to wildlife by feral cats. ABC previously stated that “outdoor” cats kill millions of birds every year, as well as many other species.

The greatest number of disease-infected deer documented by the study were urban deer, who tested positive for the parasite at a rate of nearly three times higher than rural animals. This is likely because of the greater quantity of stray cats in urban neighborhoods. Overall, researchers estimate that about 44 percent of Ohio deer are infected with the parasite.

What do Coyotes Eat: Food Habits in Texas

Coyotes (Canis latrans) can be found across Texas, the US and the North American continent. Because coyotes are such versatile animals with diverse diets, high reproductive potential, and the ability to adapt to changing habitats – they continue to inhabit new areas. Since the range of the coyote is so great and transcends ecoregions, their diet reflects a variance from vegetarianism to dependence on big game species depending upon what is available. Most determinations about the diet of coyotes are, and should be viewed as, site-specific rather than regional. It’s more about what’s abundant within a coyote’s home range than what they most like to eat.

Coyotes are generally accepted as opportunistic feeders or generalists; however, some believe that coyotes are highly selective predators. Even though coyotes are archetypal generalists, some individuals may specialize on particular prey. The theory of optimal foraging states that the predator selects certain prey because the amount of energy gained from that particular prey is greater than the amount of energy expended during its capture.

Food Habits of Coyotes

A pair of coyotes can be energetically sustained for two days on a single lamb, but it would take approximately 10 jackrabbits, or 20 ground squirrels to do the same. This means that from an energy conservation standpoint, it would be more advantageous for coyotes to specialize in the predation of lambs rather than small mammals. Another reason for prey specialization may be that a coyote, during a stressful period, turns to a certain available prey species, subsequently develops a taste for that animal and continues to prey upon it. This is often the case when a coyote specializes in the predation of livestock.

Coyotes have the ability to assess and select the most profitable food items within a wide variety of prey. Some foods are selected for more than others during certain seasons. This is more likely due to food availability of these particular items during these seasons. The frequency of predation upon big game animals during late winter months and into the spring can be directly connected to the breeding season of the coyote. Because coyotes are in larger groups at this time, it is easier for them to take down larger prey. Ungulates such as white-tailed deer will hide their fawns while for-aging, leaving them helpless against a coyote looking for a meal to take to her pups.

In July of 2014, The TPWD Kerr Wildlife Management Area (WMA), in conjunction with The University of Texas – San Antonio (UTSA), initiated a study on the dietary habits of coyotes in the Texas Hill Country. In this study, coyote scat found throughout the WMA will be collected and processed to identify all food items in each sample. At the same time, baseline food availability surveys will be conducted seasonally across the entire WMA.

After all scat samples are processed and the amount of each food item found has been quantified, each food item will be compared to the results of the availability surveys. The results of the fecal analyses when compared to the baseline food availability surveys should allow the determination of whether coyotes are behaving as generalists, or opportunistic foragers specific to the Kerr WMA.

To become better wildlife managers, we must realize the importance of holistic ecosystem management and shy away from a single species approach. Coyotes are an important component to the ecosystem of Texas. As with the management of any species, the more knowledge we gain about coyotes, the better we understand their role, and the better we can manage for a healthy ecosystem.

Monster Whitetail Buck Shot in Texas

Opening day was a bust. He went to his hunting spot again in Fannin County, Texas, on Sunday. Just after daylight, a lone doe came to his bait site and started feeding just 25 yards from where Sluder sat. Five minutes later, a young spike buck showed up with his nose to the ground and chased the doe into the nearby woods. “I had the thought that I should shoot that spike just because he was running the doe off, but I had a feeling the big buck was close by,” Sluder said.

Minutes later, the buck came in, obviously following the doe’s scent trail. He stopped at point-blank range, right where the doe had been feeding, raised his head and looked around for the doe. Jason Sluder was ready and shot the buck right behind the shoulder. “He turned and ran right at me and actually ran into my blind,” Sluder said. “He looked right at me when he was 5 feet away. It was crazy. He then stopped about 10 yards behind the blind, and I put another bullet in him. He fell right there.

Hunter Gets Fannin County Monster Buck

“It was a surreal hunt for a surreal deer. I still did not know what I had. I knew the buck was big, but I was thinking 170s [Boone and Crockett score], maybe 180s. Never did I think the buck would be this big.”

The antlers have been officially scored for the Texas Big Game Awards, which uses the same scoring system at the Boone and Crockett Club. It’s the most widely recognized method for scoring North American big game. Sluder’s buck has 18 scorable points and nearly 50 inches of mass measurements. Most mature Texas bucks have about 30 to 32 inches of mass measurements. Sluder thinks the deer was 61/2 years old.

The official TBGA score is 2146/8 gross, 1996/8 net. The net score subtracts differences in the symmetry of typical measurements. Nontypical points are then added to arrive at the final score. TBGA allows scoring antlers as soon as the buck is taken. B&C requires a 60-day drying period before antlers can be officially scored for its record book.

Managing Wildlife Habitat on Idle, Fallow Areas

The best place to start when it comes to managing habitat required by wildlife is the most neglected part of a property. Old, fallow crop fields and abandoned pastures found on private properties across the US can provide quality habitat for native wildlife. This is because wildlife love low succession plant species that provide an abundance of cover and forage. When managing for wildlife, however, it’s important to realize that what looks good to most humans and what looks good to wildlife are two completely different things.

Numerous species of wildlife are dependent upon the earlier stages of plant succession. Examples are bob white quail, rabbits and a variety of songbirds. In the absence of fire, periodic soil disturbance is needed to prevent an old field from growing into a woodland. Disking and prescribed fire will help start the process of plant succession all over again making the area more productive for wildlife.

Fallow fields can be maintained in a productive condition through a variety of management practices. If the area was pastureland there is a good chance that exotic, sod-forming grasses compromise the bulk of the plants found there. Wildlife prefer the cover and seeds produced by native bunchgrasses, so dense stands of exotic grasses should be controlled. Native grass will promote improved foraging and movement at ground level.

It’s a good idea to disturb vegetation and/or the ground during late winter or very early spring. A great habitat management practice is to disk strips through a field on the contour to expose 70 to 80 percent of the soil within the strip. This action will allow weeds to grow and will increase plant diversity within the strip over the next few years. These disked areas can also be enhanced further by seeding at a rate of 5 pounds of Kobe or Korean lespedeza per acre or other seed mix to create an improved forage plot.

Wildlife Management for Habitat

Although the idea of burning the landscape seems like a no-no to many landowners, it’s actually a great management practice for managing wildlife habitat. Burn a portion of the areas between the disked strips on an annual basis for maximum diversity. Burning sets back the plant community and stimulates the production of seeds and insects that are important to quail chicks and songbirds. Burn at 3-5 year intervals and at different times of the year.

Disturbance of an area through management is good, but it’s not a good idea to disturb an entire property at one time. Wild animals always need a place that provides food and cover, so make sure there is always something available to them. A good rule of thumb is to disk or burn about 1/3 of the old field each year. Both disking and burning can be used to prevent an area from reverting to forest, although it would be a good idea from a diversity standpoint to let some of the area grow into a shrubland or woodland.

Idle areas and fallow fields on private lands can be managed for wildlife habitat with a little work and planning. Plants and animals will respond readily to wildlife management practices that increase plant diversity. Increased wildlife numbers are a response to better seed production as well as more complex structure due to a variety of plants on a landscape.

Quail Habitat Restoration Takes Center Stage

As hunters look to the quail hunting season opening on October 25 across Texas, there is new hope for bobwhite quail, and for dozens of other birds and animals that share the same native grassland habitat. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has awarded grants to put $4 million worth of quail habitat conservation on the ground, using a special appropriation by the Texas Legislature to help bring back the quail.

“We chose places where quail are gone, but they haven’t been gone long, kind of the front line in the battle to restore bobwhites,” said Robert Perez, TPWD upland game bird program leader. “It’s a first out, first back in concept. Can we bring quail back? That’s the question we’re exploring in these focus areas.”

The three focus areas are the Southeast Texas area – close to a dozen counties around Columbus, Sealy, Victoria; the I-35 Corridor area in Navarro and Ellis County; and the Rolling Plains/Cross Timbers area – counties around and south of Wichita Falls

“We’re using the $4 million to concentrate efforts in certain counties, with partners, so that the funding goes on the ground, and you build up enough habitat to support viable quail populations that are visible in numbers,” Perez said. “The government will never be able to pay enough to restore millions of acres for quail habitat. The goal is to demonstrate success in various areas of the state and show that quail habitat can be restored, to inspire and guide private landowners throughout the quail range.”

Fifteen grants have been awarded and two more in process to various nonprofits, universities and others for grassland restoration in the three focus areas. The $4 million in grants comes from the sale of $7 upland game bird stamps purchased by hunters.

Grant partners include organizations like the Wildlife Habitat Federation west of Houston, the Western Navarro Bobwhite Recovery Initiative south of Dallas, and the Grassland Restoration Incentive Program (GRIP) under the Oaks & Prairies Joint Venture, which has already delivered habitat restoration projects on more than 36,000 acres of grasslands in the three focus areas.

In addition, Perez received a federal Wildlife Restoration Program grant for $200,000 over four years, to fund multi-year quail population monitoring to measure the impact that these combined restoration efforts are having on quail populations and other grassland birds in the focus areas.

“What’s different here is the monitoring,” Perez said. “That scale and quality of monitoring is often left out because there isn’t enough staff or money to do it. But this time we are counting birds carefully in new ways, before and after restoration. We’re hiring summer technicians to cover thousands of points, counting quail and other grassland birds that share this habitat and are also in decline.”

If you build it, they will come. Habitat is the cornerstone of every wildlife species that we have. Habitat is comprised of the food, cover, water and space that a species needs to survive. There is a lot of overlap between quail habitat and other grassland nesting birds, so promoting quail habitat means helping a lot of other critters, non-game ones included.

Texas Offers Public Hunting for Waterfowl and More

Hunting on Texas Public Land

For many Texas duck hunters, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) Annual Public Hunting Permit (APH) Program allows economical access to quality hunting on the state’s wildlife management areas (WMA). With a $48 APH, available for purchase wherever hunting and fishing licenses are sold, hunters have regular access during the season to some of the state’s prime managed wetland habitat.

The hunting is typically good, but as TPWD biologists are quick to point out, there are no guarantees when it comes to migrating ducks. However, things are looking really good right now. TPWD says Texas duck hunters should see more action during the upcoming early teal season, Sept. 13-28, thanks to near record numbers of birds and an anticipated typical migration pattern.

Teal Hunting Looks Good

Prospects for early teal season are looking very good, especially compared to the last few years, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Waterfowl Program Leader Kevin Kraai. “First, blue-winged teal populations are near record high and production reports are excellent. Additionally, unlike last year’s very late spring, nesting efforts were more on time this year and thus should result in a timely migration that will overlap better with our teal season dates.”

Texas hunters can take up to six teal daily during the 16-day season. The possession limit is three times the daily limit, which cannot be applied before the third day of the season. Information about these areas and TPWD’s public hunting program are available online at their website.

Duck Hunting by Region

Biologists say habitat conditions across most of Texas are much improved from previous years. The coastal marshes and prairies were rapidly drying out late this summer before some very welcomed rainfall the end of August put more shallow fresh water on the landscape and freshened up salty marshes and that means teal and other ducks will be using them in higher numbers. There are several public hunting areas for waterfowl along the upper and middle Texas coast.

The ponds, lakes, and reservoirs of central and eastern Texas could use some additional water, biologists suggest, but hunters that seek out the shallow waters of many of the water bodies that remain will likely encounter many of the migrating teal leaving the breeding grounds moving though the area daily. These areas should offer good waterfowl hunting during the early season and late season.

Playa wetlands of the Texas panhandle also received good rainfall early in the summer and some are still holding water that will attract early migrating ducks. These wetlands are very dynamic and many are rapidly drying with recent warm windy days and could use some additional rainfall to assure their presence on the landscape into the fall. Expect cold weather to push birds into the region during mid-hunting season.