Greenery has begun to cover the scars of a devastating fire that ripped through 32,000 acres of Central Texas three years ago. Feeding on tinder and trees withered from a searing drought, the Bastrop County Complex Fire burned for nine days, destroying more than 1,600 homes, before it was brought under control.
Also lost to the blaze was 96 percent of Bastrop State Park, a 6,565-acre home to the loblolly Lost Pines Forest and the endangered Houston toad.
As shrubs and seedlings have taken hold in the scorched park, however, park officials face a new quandary. An abundance of whitetail deer, they say, is threatening the new growth. Park officials will soon begin allowing the deer to be hunted, saying it is necessary if the park is to bounce back.
“Before the fire, we had a closed canopy forest where there wasn’t a lot of new plants sprouting that the deer like to eat, so we had a really stable population,” said Jamie Hackett, the park’s superintendent. “Since the fire, it is much more open, and there are lots of things growing. There are new oaks and shrub sprouts. Deer love to eat that, so their population is on the rise, and with that we want to make sure we keep a healthy and balanced ecosystem.”
The deer are not only eating at a higher rate than the environment can support but are rubbing up against, and damaging, young pines planted to restore the park’s forest. Volunteer groups have planted more than 6,500 seedlings since the fire.
Although the state’s deer hunting season began at the start of November, hunting in the park will not start until early January, because replanting and controlled burns are planned through the end of the year.
Starting Jan. 2, adult and youth hunts will be allowed for three days each.
This will be the first season the park will be open to adult hunters, though it held a youth hunt last season. The two hunts are projected to take at least 30 deer from the park’s herd, estimated at 1,828.
“Normally a doe will drop a fawn,” said Kelly Edmiston, the Parks and Wildlife Department’s public hunt coordinator. “When conditions are great, she’ll drop twins, so you can imagine after years of good conditions we need to manage herd levels.”
There is now one deer for roughly every three and a half acres of land, while the park’s habitat is suited for one to for every 15 acres.
“That’s a lot of deer,” said Josh Kinser, vice president of operations for the private Texas Trophy Hunters Association. “In Texas, you really have to manage your deer herd for a drought. Right now we’ve had a lot of rain. It has been good. But when you have overpopulation and a drought like we had a few years ago, deer are going to die. They are going to starve to death.”
The parks department regularly hosts hunts on more than 60 state lands and 40 state parks for animals ranging from turkeys to alligators. Hunting animals, instead of relocating them, provides recreation while cutting herd size, officials said.
The department brings in more than $36 million annually from hunting licenses, which go toward conservation efforts, while public hunts only bring about $400,000, enough to cover the expenses.
Besides recreation, Kinser said hunts provide food for the cost of the registration fee, which for most hunts is $10. That is much cheaper than hunts on private leases, he said.
“Most hunters don’t buy meat in the grocery store,” Kinser said. “We are not just shooting whatever we see, cutting off the antlers and leaving the body, like some people think. What we take in the fall is what we eat off of for the entire year.”