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|  TPWD News Releases Dated 2011-08-11                                    |
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[ Note: This item is more than two years old. Please take the publication date into consideration for any date references. ]
[ General Media Contact: Business Hours, 512-389-4406 ]
[ Additional Contacts: Kevin Kraai, (806) 674-2258, kevin.kraai@tpwd.texas.gov; Tom Harvey, (512) 389-4453, tom.harvey@tpwd.texas.gov ]
Aug. 11, 2011
Waterfowl Facing Warm, Dry Welcome to Texas
AUSTIN -This year's exceptional drought could have significant impacts on waterfowl this fall as habitats these migrants rely upon continue to degrade under a hot, dry Texas sun. The upshot for hunters: it won't be a banner waterfowl season in Texas, but those who are mobile and do their homework have a shot at decent and even potentially great waterfowl hunting in some places.
Between 5-to-6 million waterfowl on average call Texas home over the winter and this year's migration is expected to be huge due to excellent habitat conditions throughout the breeding grounds in the Dakotas and southern Canada. Unfortunately, these birds will likely get a warm, dry Texas welcome when they begin arriving in September.
"The same weather pattern that has left us high and dry has continued to bless the entire waterfowl breeding grounds up north with tremendous amounts of moisture," says Kevin Kraai, waterfowl program leader with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "We're projecting duck numbers as good as we have ever seen."
According to this year's duck breeding population survey, which is conducted annually, most duck species are enjoying substantial gains. Shovelers, redheads and bluewinged teal reached record highs and pintail surpassed 4 million for the first time since 1980.
Weather projection models indicate very little relief from the drought in Texas heading into September's early teal season and dry conditions will have a severe impact on migration for months to come. And while the Aug. 4 NOAA U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook shows intense drought continuing in most of Texas through October, the forecast also shows a possibility of some improvement along the Texas coast.
"The drought has impacted the wetlands, marshes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks and bottomlands across the state," Kraai notes. "Natural food production will most certainly be limiting in many areas."
The playa wetlands associated with the High Plains are another story all together. This drought has left these shallow water bodies high and dry now for months. What little vegetation that remained or attempted to grow in these wetlands has mostly been utilized by cattle grazing simply because it is the last green succulent vegetation available on the landscape
"It's a bit too late for plant growth and seed development, so if and when it starts raining, the most important factor in successful hunting for ducks and geese in the High Plains will be water in close proximity to available irrigated waste grain," Kraai predicts. "If things stay the way we see it now, those areas should be largely associated with more reliable water sources near urban areas and feed lots."
The impacts of the drought on Texas' primary waterfowl wintering area along the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes have been severe. Marshes are dry and those areas still holding water have become extremely salty. The high salinities are crippling fresh and brackish marsh vegetation, and adversely impacting even some of the more salt tolerant vegetation.
"The whole system is just not going to yield the food resources that we would like to see," says Kraai. "But, the dry conditions are aiding in control of some of the less desirable plants, like deep-rooted sedge, cattail and phragmites, and drought has even allowed land managers the opportunity to open up some densely vegetated wetlands by disking and mowing areas previously impossible to access by mechanical means."
If conditions do not improve, duck hunters could see birds "flaring" before they even cross the border into Texas. Waterfowl have an uncanny sense of assessing habitat conditions during migration and could bypass the Lone Star State entirely.
"They don't just fly blindly in a traditional direction hoping that they will find favorable conditions just because that is where they were last year," says Kraai. "They will set their migration sights to where there is ample food and water."
A good example of waterfowl responding to habitat conditions was illustrated with recent telemetry data that showed a hen pintail on the coast of Louisiana that reverse migrated more than 500 miles in the dead of winter to Missouri in response to a flood event that created tons of very productive new habitat.
"Waterfowl have a tendency to know where the best habitat on the landscape can be found to carry out their annual life cycles, often from hundreds of miles away," says Kraai.
Absent suitable habitat in Texas, waterfowl have plenty of options -- head east to the Mississippi Flyway, stay further north or even south to Mexico.
"The ones that do venture to less the productive habitats we are expecting in Texas this fall are expected be sensitive to disturbance and hunting pressure," Kraai predicts. "They will certainly have the potential to leave in quick order for greener pastures. Assuming no significant changes in weather, our wintering waterfowl in Texas are up for grabs by our neighbors this winter.
On the positive side many of the Texas wetland ecosystems need periods of dryness for some annual seed producing wetland plants to germinate. So, receding reservoirs and ponds across the Rolling Plains and Blackland Prairies may be a potential bright spot, assuming the rain finally comes this fall and winter. The record populations of redheads and much improved pintail populations point to potential great waterfowling opportunity among seagrass beds in bays and estuaries along the middle and lower Texas coast.
"Dryness tends to concentrate waterfowl in the more favorable places and I feel very confident that there will certainly be some hunters in parts of the state that will have excellent waterfowl hunting for no other reasons than the lack of water concentrating birds in some places and the sheer magnitude of the fall waterfowl flight," says Kraai.
"There is always water somewhere in the state of Texas and some of it will be near good food resources like peanuts, rice and corn. I am confident some fortunate landowners and hunters that receive rainfall or have access to water either from wells or irrigation canals are potentially going to experience a season they will soon not forget. Scouting and mobility during the season will be key this to successful waterfowling this coming year."
PROPOSED WATERFOWL SEASON DATESPENDING APPROVAL OF THETEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE COMMISSION
2011-2012 WATERFOWL HUNTING SEASON DATES(Shooting Hours: one half hour before sunrise to sunset)
Ducks
Zone
Hunt Type
Dates
High Plains Mallard Management Unit (HPMMU)
Youth Gun
Oct. 22-23
Regular Gun
Oct. 29-30 and Nov 4 -Jan 29
North
Youth Gun
Oct. 29-30
Regular Gun
Nov. 5 -Nov. 27 and Dec. 10 -Jan. 29
South
Youth Gun
Oct. 29-30
Regular Gun
Nov 5  Nov. 27 and Dec. 10 -Jan. 29
DUCK DAILY BAG LIMIT: The daily bag limit for ducks is 6 and can include no more than 5 mallards only 2 of which may be hens; 3 wood ducks; 2 scaup (lesser scaup and greater scaup in the aggregate); 2 redheads; 2 pintail; 1 canvasback and 1 dusky duck (mottled duck, Mexican like duck, black duck and their hybrids) after the first 5 days (See below for "dusky" duck season dates).
Dusky Duck Season (mottled, black and Mexican like duck)-
HPMMU:  Nov. 7-Jan. 29
North Zone: Nov. 10- Nov. 27 and Dec.10 -- Jan. 29
South Zone: Nov. 10-Dec.4 and Dec. 17- Jan. 29
Youth Waterfowl Season-Dusky Ducks and geese may be taken during the youth only seasons for waterfowl.
Merganser Daily Bag Limit: 5 in the aggregate, to include no more than 2 hooded mergansers.
Coot Daily Bag Limit: 15
POSSESSION LIMIT: Twice the daily bag.
Geese
Zone
Species
Dates
West
Light and Dark Geese
Nov. 5  Feb. 5
Light Geese (Conservation Order)
Feb. 6 -Mar. 25
East
Light Geese
Nov. 5 -Jan. 29
White-fronted Goose
Nov. 5 -Jan. 15
Canada Goose
Sept. 10  25 and Nov. 5 -Jan. 29
Light Geese (Conservation Order)
Jan. 30 - Mar.25
Western Zone Daily Bag Limit: Light geese - 20 in the aggregate; Dark geese - 5 Dark geese to include no more than 1 white-fronted goose.
Eastern Zone Daily Bag Limit: Light geese - 20 in the aggregate; Canada geese-3 and White-fronted geese-2.
POSSESSION LIMIT: Twice the daily bag limit for dark geese, no possession limit for light geese.
Sandhill Cranes:
Zone A: Nov. 5, 2011 -- Feb. 5, 2012
Zone B: Nov. 25, 2011 -- Feb. 5, 2012
Zone C: Dec. 24, 2011 -- Jan. 29, 2012
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[ Note: This item is more than two years old. Please take the publication date into consideration for any date references. ]
[ General Media Contact: Business Hours, 512-389-4406 ]
[ Additional Contacts: Dan Bennett, (903) 561-2161, dan.bennett@tpwd.texas.gov; Larry Hodge, (903) 670-2255; larry.hodge@tpwd.texas.gov ]
Aug. 11, 2011
Alligator Gar Research in Texas Helps Protect Trophy Fishery
ATHENS -- Despite being one of the largest freshwater fish species in North America, scientists knew little about alligator gar until relatively recently. In the last two decades, knowledge about the species has grown tremendously in response to evidence that alligator gar populations are declining in many areas.
The primary reasons alligator gar have declined throughout much of their historic 14-state range are loss of floodplain habitats necessary for reproduction (from reservoir construction and river channelization) and overfishing. As a result, the American Fisheries Society has considered alligator gar "at risk of imperilment" since 2008.
Texas is fortunate to still have many of the best populations of large alligator gar in the world. The Trinity River has become one of the most popular locations to fish for the species. Susceptibility to habitat loss, coupled with increased fishing pressure, prompted Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) to adopt a one-fish per day bag limit on September 1, 2009. This made Texas the eighth state to adopt harvest regulations for alligator gar.
Alligator gar longer than six feet are considered to be more vulnerable to angler harvest due to their more desirable "trophy" size. Although alligator gar may reach three feet in length in three years, their growth rate slows with age, and the fish may take 20 to 30 years to reach a length of six feet.
Biologists have discovered that alligator gar can live more than 50 years and take about a decade to become sexually mature. It could take several decades to restore their numbers if depleted. Many states are already in the process of stocking and attempting to reestablish alligator gar populations. By setting a one-fish per day regulation, Texas inland fisheries biologists hope to prevent the decline in alligator gar populations seen in other areas.
A number of research initiatives have been completed or are underway to better understand gar populations throughout Texas. TPWD biologists have conducted studies to evaluate growth rates and life span, understand their reproduction, and track the seasonal movement of alligator gar. Biologists have also conducted studies to evaluate angler harvest rates of alligator gar and estimate population sizes.
Efforts to increase age data for alligator gar from waters throughout the state are underway by collecting otoliths from angler-caught alligator gar. Otoliths are pairs of small bones in the inner ears of fish which contain annual growth rings similar to the rings in a tree. Age data make it possible to determine how fast fish grow, how long they are capable of living, and compare historical river conditions to the year the fish were hatched.
By comparing age data with historical water levels, biologists observed high river flows during late spring can result in strong alligator gar reproductive success. For example, high river flows in 2007 resulted in a very strong year-class of alligator gar in the Trinity River. In the current drought year, alligator gar may produce few to no offspring at all. Knowledge about which environmental conditions produced the most fish will allow biologists to better predict strong and weak year classes. Biologists may also be able to work with river and reservoir controlling authorities to help provide the conditions necessary for successful reproduction.
From October 2008 through July 2010, a study on the Trinity River used acoustic tags to track the movements of alligator gar between Lake Livingston and Trinity Bay. Biologists found alligator gar were concentrated in deep pools in the main river channel for most of the year but moved to tributaries and protected backwaters during flooding. Biologists also found that although some fish moved more than 100 miles, most of the alligator gar remained within 15 miles of their tagging locations. There was little interaction between fish tagged in different parts of the river, suggesting that alligator gar near Trinity Bay may be a separate population than alligator gar near Lake Livingston Dam. Further research is needed to determine if these populations should be managed separately.
A mark-recapture study in the river between Dallas and Lake Livingston (about 200 river miles) was also conducted with the help of fishing guide Kirk Kirkland. Captain Kirkland tagged alligator gar, and TPWD recorded the number of tagged fish he and other anglers caught.
With these data, biologists estimated that this portion of the river contained about 9,200 alligator gar 42 inches long or longer and about 1,400 fish 78 inches or longer. It was determined that about three to four percent of these alligator gar were harvested annually with most (73 percent) of the harvest occurring between April and July of each year. Biologists also estimated that only about 5 percent, or 400 fish 42 inches or longer, could be harvested each year from this portion of the river and still sustain this trophy fishery.
Since 2009, 130 harvested alligator gar have been collected and aged from anglers at Trinity River bowfishing tournaments. Using information obtained from tournaments, biologists were also able to estimate harvest rates of alligator gar at the events. Only about one alligator gar was harvested for every four bowfishers at the Trinity River tournaments, and it took an average of 50 angler-hours to harvest an alligator gar at a tournament. Angers harvested an average of 21 fish each year 42 inches or longer during the three studied tournaments, or about 5 percent of the sustainable annual harvest of 400 fish. This level of harvest from tournaments alone is well below estimated sustainable levels; however, biologists still need more information to determine what total percentage of alligator gar are harvested annually outside of bow fishing tournaments and using other methods like rod and reel.
While the Trinity River is a well-known stronghold for alligator gar in the state, many Texas reservoirs, such as Choke Canyon Reservoir and Lake Amistad, also support healthy populations. TPWD began a tagging study of alligator gar in Choke Canyon Reservoir in 2011. Tags returned by anglers will provide biologists with information on harvest, abundance, size structure, and survival. In addition, recaptures of tagged fish during the spawning season will provide clues to number of spawning locations, how often fish spawn in the reservoir, and if fish return to the same locations to spawn each year.
Through the various research projects throughout the state, biologists plan to refine management objectives specific to certain rivers and reservoirs around the state to better maintain or enhance the alligator gar fisheries. Future research needs will involve further assessments of alligator gar populations around Texas to better understand fishing pressure and harvest. A population study of alligator gar in the Brazos River below Waco is currently in the planning stages. TPWD's goal is to study and manage Texas alligator gar populations to sustain excellent fishing opportunities for this species for present and future generations to enjoy.
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