In an effort to improve the overall mule deer herd composition in the Texas Panhandle, Texas Parks and Wildlife officials are considering making changes to the mule deer hunting regulations. Specifically, TPWD is looking at implementing antler restrictions in order to reduce the harvest of younger mule deer bucks.

According to TPWD mule deer program director Shawn Gray, the mule deer herd in the southeastern portion of the Texas Panhandle is in rough shape. Specifically, the mule deer herd has far too few bucks 3.5 years of age or older and a skewed doe-to-buck ratio of around 6 to 1.

TPWD thinks these problems are the result of hunters harvesting too many young bucks. Current regulations permit hunters to harvest one mule deer buck in Texas during all seasons combined. While most counties only allow hunters to harvest bucks during mule deer season, hunters may harvest up to two mule deer (but still no more than one buck) in Brewster, Pecos and Terrell Counties.

Texas does not currently have any antler restrictions during mule deer season, meaning that any deer with a hardened antler protruding through the skin is considered a legal buck. However, that could change next hunting season.

To address these problems with the mule deer herd, TPWD is considering implementing antler restrictions in Briscoe, Childress, Cottle, Floyd, Hall and Motley counties beginning in 2018. Under the proposed antler restrictions, it would be illegal to harvest bucks with an outside spread less than 20 inches in these counties.

The proposed 20-inch minimum spread requirement is intended to prevent hunters from harvesting young bucks, which officials hope will eventually increase the number of bucks in the older age classes.

According to Gray, approximately 80 percent of the mule deer bucks in the Texas Panhandle younger than 3.5 years old have a spread of less than 20 inches. Additionally, the average distance between the tips of a mule deer's ears is 21 inches, which would give hunters a quick way to field judge whether a deer is legal to take or not.

Texas implemented similar antler restrictions with whitetail deer several years ago by establishing a 13-inch minimum spread for branch antlered deer. While the restrictions were somewhat controversial and did lower the overall buck harvest at first, TPWD stated that the restrictions were successful in their overall goal of improving the age structure of the whitetail deer herd.

If implemented, TPWD plans to study the results of the antler restrictions in those six counties for several years. If the restrictions have the desired result of increasing the age class of mule deer bucks and improving the overall condition of the mule deer population, it's possible that the agency could implement antler restrictions for mule deer in additional counties.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission will make a decision regarding the proposed mule deer antler restrictions, along with proposals to increase the length of the whitetail deer season and whether to allow air rifles for hunting big game in March. Depending on how things go at the meeting, hunters in Texas could be in for some big changes this fall.