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Forecast By Mike Gnatkowski

Deer numbers across much of the Great Plains have been on an upward spiral for nearly a decade and hunters have been reaping the bounty. That trend came to an end last season. A second year of severe drought in many parts of the Great Plains caused disease to rear its ugly head, the dry conditions fostered major forest fires and poor habitat conditions took their toll.

NEBRASKA

The Great Plains state that experienced the biggest decline in deer numbers was Nebraska. The Cornhusker State was hard hit by drought, which led to an epidemic outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), which decimated the state’s deer herd.

“Nebraska experienced record deer losses last year,” admitted Kit Hams, Big Game Program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. “One of the problems with the outbreak of EHD was it coincided with a record-high deer herd. We have been successful in reducing the herd by a 20-25 percent range in the east, but not enough in the central and western portions of the state and that’s where a lot of the losses occurred.”

Hams said things were rosy up until last year. “After years of steady growth in mule deer and whitetail herds, populations are now at levels similar to those seen about 10 years ago for whitetail and mule deer.”

Overall, the deer harvest plummeted by 23,000 animals to 60,000, down from a record high of 83,000 in 2011. Hams said one of the best indicators of the severity of the decline was the fact that white-tailed deer harvest was down by 28 percent. Whitetail buck harvest was down 11,000 (to 26,309 in 2012; peak was 37,967 in 2010). Whitetail antlerless harvest was down 14,300 (to 29,974 in 2012) (peak was 39,283 in 2011). Mule deer buck harvest was down to 7,325 (from a peak harvest in 2008 of 9,115).

Hams estimated that approximately 30 percent of the whitetail herd was lost across the board, with the exception of Frenchman Unit. “All deer units except Frenchman experienced significant declines in whitetail deer,” claimed Hams.

Hardest hit were Loup West, which lost 45 percent of its deer and Calamus West with losses of close to 44 percent. The unit with the next-highest losses was the Missouri Unit at 39 percent. Whitetail buck harvest overall was down 30 percent in 2012 due to EHD. “Further south, EDH occurs annually, so the animals build up a resistance to it,” said Hams. “It typically coincides with severe drought, an abundance of midges, reduced water supplies and concentrations of deer.” The die-off area occurred in a triangular shape from north to south with the most prolific losses occurring across the northern tier of counties and along the Platte River.

All mule deer units except Frenchman, Plains, Platte and Upper Platte have experienced significant declines in mule deer. “Mule deer populations continue to decline in some units because of habitat conversion to row crops and the presence of brain worm disease,” said Hams. “Platte and Buffalo unit populations have declined 20 percent in three years. Non-resident demand for mule deer permits continues to increase as mule deer populations decline in other states. Permit demand exceeds supply in the Frenchman Unit. Although mule deer doe harvest is the lowest the state has allowed in more than 25 years, it is not the reason for the population decline.” Hams added that mule deer numbers have declined by 50 percent in the north-central part of the state due to the brain worm infestation.

2012 harvest was still the eighth-highest harvest on record for mule deer and white-tailed deer, and the number of older-age bucks the past three years has never been better. Central and eastern units had the largest population reductions, but all units saw some reduction in whitetails. Herd growth is the objective in most units, so 70 percent of all bonus antlerless tags have been eliminated in 2013. “2013-2015 will be rebuilding years with significant reductions in antlerless-deer permits and limited reductions in general-deer permits,” said Hams.

Regulation Changes

Changes in Nebraska deer regulations for 2013 include:

•3,900 less November firearm permits.

•6,700 less Season Choice antlerless permits.

•77,000 antlerless bonus tags removed from unlimited Archery, Muzzleloader, Youth, Statewide Buck permits.

•600 antlerless-only permits with antlerless-only whitetail bonus tags are added to Frenchman (400), Pine Ridge (100) and Sandhills (100) units.

•River Antlerless permit quota increased from 4,500 to 5,500.

•Limit Non-resident Statewide Buck permit to one per person.

•Medicine Creek, Red Willow, Enders and Swanson State Recreation Areas/Wildlife Management Areas are closed to use of Season Choice Antlerless permits.

•Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is closed to harvest of antlerless mule deer. DeSoto December Muzzleloader season is closed.

•No antlerless mule deer harvest allowed north of U.S. Highway 20 and west of Nebraska Highway 71.

•Boundaries expanded for River Antlerless, Season Choice Area Frenchman West and Season Choice Area Platte North

For more information, consult the Nebraska Big Game Hunting Guide.

“The good news is that rain has returned to the drought-stricken plains of Nebraska; the outlook is good,” said Hams.

KANSAS

With a high deer population and plenty of options when it comes to seasons and permits, Kansas is definitely the land of opportunity for the best deer hunting on the Great Plains.

Jeremy Schmeidler with his 223-inch Kansas Wild Thing. Photo via North American Whitetail.

“First, let me try to explain the rather complicated system of deer hunting that occurs in KS,” said Dr. Lloyd Fox, Big Game Program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Parks, Wildlife and Tourism. “Last year there were 120,838 people who purchased 192,850 deer permits. There are 30 different permit types offered in Kansas and we sample hunters with those various permit types to estimate the harvest, days of activity, etc.

“Deer hunters in Kansas could potentially purchase seven different permits; only one would allow them to take an antlered deer, five are white-tailed only antlerless-only (WTAO) permits and some of those restrict the hunter to certain Deer Management Units (DMU), while others are valid statewide, including on public-hunting areas. The WTAO are valid during any season with the equipment that is legal for that season. The Hunt-On-Your-Own-Land (HOL) permits and Any Season W-T Either Sex permits are also valid during any season with the equipment legal during that season. What this means is a hunter might be able to hunt any season even though the permit they consider most important (the one that allows them to kill a buck) is not valid during that season.” Kansas’s deer hunters harvested an estimated 94,070 deer last year.

Like Nebraska, Kansas has endured two years of severe drought and a lack of moisture, but the Kansas deer herd has not suffered like Nebraska’s. It seems deer in the Sunflower State have been exposed to diseases, like EHD, over a prolonged period of time and have built up immunity, or at least a resistance to it. Kansas’ deer suffered few losses to the disease last year. CWD, though, is a different story. According to Fox, CWD has been present in Kansas for more than eight years now and seems to be spreading. First detected in Cheyenne County in 2005, the disease has now spread as far south and east as DMU 17.

The best way to waylay a Kansas deer is to cultivate a relationship with a landowner or book a hunt with a guide. Those looking to for a DIY hunt should check out the over 1 million acres of land enrolled in the state’s Walk-In Hunting Area Program (WIHA). Maps and other information are available on the state’s website. Archery hunters will have an easier time getting to hunt private lands than gun hunters.

With regard to harvest numbers Fox stated, “I am having difficulty estimating the number of hunters itemized per unit. Our system allows many hunters to obtain a permit they could use statewide and we have to estimate where those hunters spend most of their effort to get a unit harvest. The initial calculation this year had some glitches and I have not been able to get back to it. Statewide, deer hunters took about 4 percent fewer deer in Kansas from 2011 to 2012.”

For additional information, please visit the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism.

SOUTH DAKOTA

“Overall, hunters enjoyed a good season in 2012,” offered Andy Lindbloom, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks senior big game biologist. “We saw reduced license sales, but overall hunters had decent success.” Statewide, hunters harvested 71,500 deer in South Dakota during the 2012 season, down from 85,160 harvested in 2011. Of that total, 62,900 were whitetails (30,800 bucks, 32,100 does) and 8,600 were mule deer (4,900 bucks, 3,700 does.) Hunters logged a total of 57,700 days in the field last season.

Most units in South Dakota will see an across-the-board cut in the number of tags this season. Any-Deer tags in the East River units will be reduced from 22,040 in 2012 to 21,565 in 2013. Antlerless-Deer tags will decreased from 36,545 in 2012 to 29,170 in 2013. Overall, the total number of tags for the East River units will drop from 58,585 to 50,685 in 2013.

West River unit hunters will se a similar reduction in tag numbers in 2013 from 46,115 to 44,750. The number of Any-Deer tags will drop to 17,740 in 2013 from 18,215 in 2012 and “Antlerless Deer” tags will be cut from 27,900 in 2012 to 27,000 in 2013. In the Black Hills unit, there will be 50 less resident tags offered and four less non-resident tags. Look for the deer herds in the Black Hills to benefit from the massive effort to remove pine beetle-killed trees, which will open up the understory in many places and foster better deer habitat.

Much of the land in South Dakota is private, so hunters hoping to deer hunt in the state need to do their homework well in advance of the season by securing permission from landowners to hunt. It’s a good idea to visit the state’s website (http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/big-game/deer/default.aspx) and study harvest numbers, hunter success and drawing odds before applying. Those looking to hunt on public land should consider the state’s Walk-In and state-owned Game Production areas. Together, they offer more than 1.3 million acres of public-hunting lands. Other options include Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA), some school lands and some Bureau of Land Management lands (BLM). These can also be accessed through the SDGF&P website, as well as a web-based interactive map system, a GPS download application and an Android Smartphone application. (Go to http://gfp.sd.gov/hunting/.)

“Last year was a record year for EHD in South Dakota,” lamented Lindbloom. “We received reports of 3,713 dead deer.” The EHD die-offs were most prevalent in southeast and south-central South Dakota. The die-offs prompted SDGFP to take emergency action in October 2012 to reduce the number of licenses available during the second drawing in the East River deer-hunting season.

For additional information, please visit South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks.

NORTH DAKOTA

After three severe winters that knocked deer herds down, North Dakota deer might have gotten a break in 2012-2013. “We had severe winter conditions in northeast North Dakota that will undoubtedly impact populations there,” claimed North Dakota Game & Fish Department’s Big Game Supervisor Bill Jensen. For the most part, deer in the rest of the state enjoyed a relatively mild winter.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department conducted its annual spring mule deer survey and results indicate western North Dakota’s mule deer population increased 15 percent from last year. However, the 2013 spring mule deer index is still 22 percent lower than the long-term average.

Bruce Stillings, big game supervisor, said the increase is a result of no antlerless deer harvested in 2012, and relatively mild winter conditions across much of mule deer range.

“It’s encouraging, but challenges remain for further population growth, including changes in habitat, energy development, predators and weather patterns,” Stillings said. The population change from 2012 was not consistent across the entire mule deer range. Stillings said hunting unit 4F in the southern portion of the badlands stayed the same, while the core mule deer range covering hunting units 4B, 4C, 4D and 4E had a healthy increase. The northernmost mule deer unit, 4A, experienced a substantial population decline.

The 2012 North Dakota numbers were as follows: 65,150 licenses available, estimated 34,555 total deer harvested. (32,499 WTD and 2,056 mule deer). 2012 overall success rate of 63 percent. Harvest down 14,907 from 2011 or a decline of 30 percent. No antlerless mule deer licenses issued in 2012. License numbers for 2013 regular deer gun season will be 59,500. This is a decrease of 5,800 licenses from 2012. Hunter success in 2011 was 52 percent, and increased to 63 percent in 2012.

For additional information, please visit the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.

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