On the day before New Year’s Eve, Megan Urban, chief of interpretation and education for the Big Thicket Natural Preserve, got a call from the preserve’s chief ranger.
“He had just gotten information about axis deer that had gotten loose from the area, from a private ranch up in that area,” Urban said.
The Big Thicket is a federal preserve that spreads over more than 113,000 acres of Southeast Texas. It’s full pine forests and bayous, and it’s home to wide variety of animal life – but not axis deer.
Axis deer are spotted, brown-and-white deer that move in herds. They’re originally from India and Nepal, but were brought to Texas as a game animal. They remain quite popular for that purpose.
The deer found in the Big Thicket came from a private ranch. Local game wardens believe they’ve identified the ranch from which they escaped. The owner could face civil penalties like a fine if they’re found liable for the release.
The axis deer were spotted toward the end of deer hunting season, so the preserve’s chief ranger and superintendent decided to go ahead and allow hunters at the Big Thicket to shoot the axis as well as the white-tailed deer if they already had a permit for the area – no special tags or fees needed.
“If they’re out there and they see an axis deer, they could take it. They didn’t have to let us know, they don’t have to let the game wardens know,” Urban said.
There was a sense of urgency to the decision. Axis deer are not supposed to just roam freely in Southeast Texas. They’re an invasive species, legally in the same category as feral hogs. Acting fast is crucial to keeping such an animal from gaining a foothold in an ecosystem, according to Warren Conway, professor and chair of wildlife management at Texas Tech University.
“Early detection, rapid response. If they don’t want to have free-ranging axis in the Big Thicket, early detection rapid response, meaning go out there and remove them from the landscape,” Conway said.
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Urban said that hunters responded enthusiastically to the opportunity to hunt axis deer at the Big Thicket. But it’s unknown how many were killed, since hunters weren’t required to report their results. It’s clear though that the hunt did not remove all the axis from the area. Locals reported seeing axis deer around the area days after the window to hunt them at the Big Thicket closed.
According to Conway, the axis deer probably wouldn’t have any problems living in Southeast Texas. The climate is more similar to their native range than other parts of Texas where they’ve already established a free-roaming population, such as the Hill Country.
Conway and his colleagues are studying how axis deer and native white-tailed deer interact. There are some key differences between them. First, white-tailed deer have a specific breeding season, axis deer mate year-round. There’s some overlap in their diet, but axis will forage for plants that white-tails won’t eat.
“So, a really bad drought year, not much plant production, who’s going to win? In those situations, it may be the axis that win because they’ve got a little bit more flexible diet, and they’re behaviorally dominant over white-tail,” Conway said.
That’s not to say that axis deer are an immediate threat to crowd out white-tailed deer. But they will provide competition for resources that wasn’t there before.
They could also increase the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease, a deadly, highly transmissible neurologic disease that affects animals like deer, elk, and moose.
Conway said the sort of event like the one in Big Thicket – where non-native animals escape their enclosure and roam free across Texas – are going to keep happening, as the state’s largely unregulated exotic animal business continues to thrive.
“I think it’s reality, the fact that we’re going to continue to see escapees and new species coming into the landscape. Those are real problems,” he said.
At the Big Thicket, it’s still unclear exactly what effect the axis deer will have. Experts at the preserve will spend this year looking for evidence of their impact.
“Now that that ‘oh, we have axis deer on the preserve, what do we do?’ has passed, you know we have kind of a moment to do some research, do some field studies, and make a broad management decision,” Urban said.