2006 Pronghorn Preview

2006 Pronghorn Preview

Mild winters result in lots of pronghorns on the prairie -- and lots of permits for hunting them this fall. How's the season is shaping up in your state? (August 2006)

The author, a South Dakotan, used his trusty blackpowder rifle to take this good-sized antelope during rifle season. The coyote made the mistake of showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time!
Photo by Mark Kayser.

Pronghorn antelope continue to rank among the big-game animals most fickle to manage. What's the evidence? From the Dakotas to southern Kansas, pronghorn population densities vary more than do grass varieties.

Regardless of those fluctuating numbers, pronghorn opportunities are plentiful for hunters in the Great Plains, residents and non-residents alike, and the crystal-ball outlook for 2006 is clear and bright.

As for climate issues, North and South Dakota have recovered fully from the effects of the devastating winter of 1996-97. And one important category of access is expanding. Although most states limit firearm hunting for out-of-staters, South Dakota offers a percentage of non-resident firearm tags that continues to increase, and archery opportunities in both Dakotas and Nebraska are unlimited. Kansas is even considering added unlimited bowhunting licenses for 2006. By studying state license application procedures and the pronghorn outlook, you can easily find a pronghorn adventure in the grassland alley of mid-America.

Last winter most of the region posted record-high temperatures and low snowfall -- a combination putting little or no stress on pronghorns, thus allowing them to cruise smoothly into the 2006 seasons. You have only to review the devastating effects of a severe winter like 1996-97, when many Dakota regions experienced a loss of more than 50 percent of the herd, to realize the coldest season's potential impact.

Barring any unforeseen weather, and with continuing hope for relief from regional drought, pronghorn hunters can reasonably anticipate a solid if not unbelievable season in 2006. Here are the state-by-state breakdowns for this year's hunts.

NORTH DAKOTA

In 2005, North Dakota decided to do something about a burgeoning surplus of pronghorns before Mother Nature stepped in. Last season, every management unit crashed through the carrying-capacity ceiling, so the North Dakota Game and Fish Department increased the number of doe and fawn tags dramatically.

"Our population objectives are based on how many pronghorns we can sustain in an average winter, and on landowner tolerance," explained big-game biologist Bruce Stillings, a six-year veteran of the NDGFD. "We hit the does and fawns pretty hard, so I wouldn't expect to see more hunting opportunities in 2006. But hunters can expect more of the same, and 2005 was a good season."

Stillings estimates North Dakota's pronghorn herd at approximately 15,000 animals. The population has taken a jump that can be traced directly to the series of extremely mild winters experienced for nearly a decade in the upper Great Plains.

"In the last two or three years, the pronghorns have responded particularly well with the extremely mild winters," Stillings said, "and there's no doubt we've finally reached and recovered fully from the 1996-97 winter die-off. This year we have had a nonexistent, mild winter, with little or no snow. We are going to be in good shape for the 2006 fall."

Boasting one of the most comprehensive survey programs in the Great Plains, North Dakota takes stock of its population through aerial flights in early July. In 2005 department officials covered 19,000 square miles to document the population on its range.

"We fly a one-mile-wide strip transect across virtually all primary pronghorn range," Stillings offered. "The reason we fly in early July is to make sure we count the fawns -- they are out of the hiding mode by that time of year. The airplane flies down the half-mile line, and we count and classify all pronghorns spotted in the half-mile zone left or right of the plane. Last year we put out six planes in a 10-day stretch to get the job done."

Bowman County is by far the top county for pronghorns in the state, followed by Slope, Golden, Billings and McKenzie counties. When you get east of those counties, Stillings pointed out, the pronghorn population has also increased dramatically in this secondary range as well. Private land makes up the overwhelming majority of the habitat here, but within the Little Missouri National Grasslands in McKenzie County lie sizeable tracts of huntable public land.

North Dakota allows no non-resident firearm hunting, but out-of-state bowhunters are generously accommodated. Archery season opens in early September and runs through early October; firearm season opens in late September and extends to mid-October. (Stillings has a reminder for firearm hunters: The average wait for a license is from five to seven years.) Archery licenses are unlimited and can be purchased over the counter at licensing agents throughout the pronghorn's range. Non-resident archery licenses cost $200; the resident license is $20, and resident youth (under 16) can get a license for $10. The licensee is allowed to take a pronghorn of either sex.

Non-residents and residents alike also need habitat and general hunting licenses. License applications are available in mid-July; the submission deadline is in early August.

The approximately 1,420 bowhunters hosted by North Dakota in 2005 rang up enough kills for a 16 percent success rate. In the vicinity of 2,390 North Dakota firearm any-pronghorn licenses were issued; those hunters achieved an 85 percent success rate. Another 3,325 doe/fawn tags were issued; the success rate for holders of those was 81 percent.

SOUTH DAKOTA

The pronghorn news couldn't be much better than it is right now, and if you've ever had a hankering to hunt these antelope in the Rushmore State, 2006 will surely be the year to give it a try. Here as in North Dakota, a series of mild winters has allowed the pronghorn population to breeze through to annual increases.

Wintering herds were treated to record-high temperatures in January, and winter mortality was virtually zero. And South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks biologists expect another bump in the population for 2006.

"Our population going into the 2005 hunting season was pushing 60,000 animals," stated Ted Benzon, a senior big-game biologist who's been with the SDDGFP for 25 years, "and frankly, that's more antelope than we'd like to see. We'd like to have our overall population closer to 45,000 antelope for the entire range."

While the notion of having lots of animals around to boost success rates to 70 percent or beyond is attractive, the inevitable bad winter will force the pronghorns to migrate to better habitat -- and along the way, they'll encounter fences. Unless they find a way through, over or under, they push themselves into corners, and there succumb to the elements.

"If we don't keep the population at a reasonable number, we could lose a lot of animals in a bad winter," explained Benzon, "and that does nobody any good. It's better to allow the sportsmen to go out and harvest them, and utilize the resource. Just like any other big-game animal: You can't stockpile them, so you might as well enjoy the resource."

South Dakota gathers its pronghorn stats in pretty much the same way that North Dakota does -- through aerial surveys. At the end of May and into the first part of June, crews fly transects of the primary pronghorn units in the state, particularly in the northwest corner. Data from the flights document buck and doe density. To acquire reliable numbers on fawn recruitment and thus form a complete picture of the herd, the department conducts a second survey in June and July, during which crews hit the ground to do physical counts of the number of fawns per doe.

Hunter surveys contribute to a positive pronghorn picture. In 2004, hunters -- a majority of whom expressed satisfaction with their experience -- averaged a little over two days of hunting.

Data for the 2005 season were still being compiled at press time, but 2004's numbers suffice to reflect the quality of South Dakota's pronghorn action. In that year the SDDGFP issued nearly 6,000 resident and 473 non-resident firearm licenses, many of both being double tags that included a second doe or fawn, making a total tag count of 10,264. Those who acquired these managed a success rate of 71 percent. South Dakota's season starts during the first week of October, with a second season for specific units running into mid-October.

South Dakota allows archery hunting for both residents and non-residents with an unlimited license system. Licenses can be applied for throughout the season or picked up over the counter at the Pierre licensing office during weekday work hours. In 2004, 837 resident and 278 non-resident bowhunters took to the field in pursuit of pronghorns and had super success, posting a rate of 23 percent. In 1998, after the horrible winter of 1996-97, bowhunter success dropped to a low of 11 percent.

South Dakota's archery season opens in late August and extends through Oct. 31, closing for the interval during which rifle season is open. Resident licenses for archery and firearm cost $35 for a one-tag permit and $45 for a two-tag permit; non-resident pronghorn hunters spend $195 for a one-tag permit and $245 for a two-tag permit. Two-tag permits are only issued for firearm hunts.

All big-game archery hunters aged 11 to 15 and all first-time archery big-game hunters must have a National Bowhunter Education Foundation certificate, or a certification of completion from a bowhunter education course approved by any state or provincial government.

South Dakota's highest pronghorn densities can be found in the northwest and southwest corners of the state, where the state borders Montana and Wyoming. Best bets for trophies and for larger herds include Harding, Butte, Perkins and Fall River counties. Mature trophies can also be found in Corson, Ziebach, Meade, Jackson, Jones and other low-density counties. Check out-of-the-way prairie areas for overlooked trophy prospects. Of all pronghorn hunts in 2004, nearly 66 percent took place on private lands, 19.2 on public lands, and 15.2 percent in walk-in areas.

NEBRASKA

Nebraska's pronghorns can't seem to catch a break. Residing primarily in the western half of the state, with the Panhandle and Sandhills units providing most of their habitat, they struggle with both the encroachment of agriculture and drought, a key factor in the stagnant population. But don't get depressed just yet: Under a preference-point licensing system, pronghorn enthusiasts can bowhunt unlimitedly, as well as avail themselves of additional muzzleloader and firearm opportunities.

"We don't know all the answers to pronghorn problems in the state," stated Kit Hams, a big-game program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission with 28 years of experience, "but the most likely culprit is the extensive drought from 2000 to 2004. We believe the drought hurt both reproduction and recruitment of fawns, plus the survival of adults.

"We had a significant break in the drought about 18 months ago. Still, Nebraska is on the edge of the pronghorn range, so our habitat just doesn't have the carrying capacity or the structure like you can find on the Wyoming side in their units."

Hams rates the population as slightly improved over the status of last couple of years, but in nearly every unit the numbers for total population and overall age-structure among bucks are definitely below state objectives. Because of this sluggish population growth, Hams says, the Cornhusker State has seen virtually no pronghorn harvest for several seasons and will likely continue on that path until solid signs of major recovery are detected.

Nebraska also performs aerial surveys. Their objective being to count bucks, does and fawns, most flights take place in July, and are conducted in the Panhandle, whose populations are denser than is characteristic of the scattered groups in the Sandhills. Also, harvest data collected at check stations enables researchers to acquire numbers on age.

The largest population is historically found in the northwest; Sioux and Dawes counties are standouts. Hunting in the Sandhills region isn't quantity-oriented. Low population densities and scarce permits (some area counties issue only 15, and the entire area offers barely 100) often cause people to shy away from the region -- but according to Hams, it's the place if what you're after is a relatively large buck.

It's anticipated that the 2006 firearm season will run from the first through the third week in October. Though permitted to apply for firearm permits, non-residents have virtually no chance of obtaining one, as residents get first crack at the limited tags. In 2005, Nebraska firearm hunters took 419 animals, achieving a 63 percent success rate.

Nebraska also offers a separate muzzleloader season, which in 2006 should run from mid-September through early October. Muzzleloader hunters active in the '05 season shot 101 pronghorns -- a 59 percent success rate. Nebraska's muzzleloader hunt is widely regarded as one of the state's best-quality hunts.

Nebraska's archery season, for which licenses are unlimited, is open to non-residents. Archery season is anticipated to open the third week in August, to close in early November, and to reopen in late November through Dec. 31; it's also closed during the pronghorn firearm season. Archers killed 49 pronghorns in 2005 -- a 13 percent success rate.

Resident archery an

d firearm permits cost $27 -- $13.50 for resident landowners -- while non-resident archery permits cost $132. Beginning in April and continuing through the season, archers can pick permits up at any district office. The application period for firearm and muzzleloader permits begins in early April. Nebraska provides a preference-point system giving priority to those unsuccessful in previous drawings.

KANSAS

Kansas, known more for whitetails than for pronghorns, goes into 2006 with more of the antelope. According to Matt Peek, pronghorn project coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, 2006 may well shape up to be one of the best pronghorn years in the past five. Reproductive success and fawn recruitment have been high. Peek believes that though Kansas continues dry, the past two years' timely rains have increased habitat critical for fawn survival. Coyotes still plague Kansas' pronghorns, but improved cover enables enough fawns to survive to boost overall population.

"We estimate there are approximately 2,000 pronghorns in Kansas," said Peek. "It's one of the smallest populations, but our success rates compare well to the rest of the pronghorn states. We do an aerial production survey in July and August to establish buck, doe and fawn ratios. In January and February we fly again, and run what we consider our population estimate surveys. When we combine that with a harvest report from nearly every hunter, we feel we are getting a good look at our overall population."

The strongest pronghorn populations are found along the Colorado border in the western half of the state. The three top hunt units: 2, 17 and 18. Unit 2, in the northwest corner, has the highest pronghorn densities.

Non-residents should take a look at archery pronghorn hunting, as Peek reports that the commission is considering unlimited licenses for bowhunters both resident and non-resident. Ordinarily, non-residents can't hunt in any of Kansas' archery, muzzleloader or firearm pronghorn seasons. Opportunities are few: It takes a resident at least 5 to 6 preference points to draw a firearm license, while 2 to 4 points will secure a muzzleloader license.

Licenses cost $47.15 for both resident archery and firearm permits, and landowner/tenant licenses run $27.15; archery permits are unlimited. The season is tentatively set to run from Sept. 23 to Oct. 1; it will reopen on Oct. 1 and run through Oct. 31.

In 2005, Kansas sold 153 archery permits; those bowhunters attained a 20 percent success rate. Archers can take an animal of either sex. Hunting takes place primarily in the west and southwest corner of the state; detailed units describe archery areas.

Firearm season is tentatively set for Oct. 6-9. In 2005, the 121 firearm hunters' success rate was 75 percent. Muzzleloader season is expected to run Oct. 2-9. In 2005, 65 percent of 38 hunters met with success. Keep in mind that during the first four days of muzzleloader season, front-stuffers may be equipped only with open sights; thereafter a scope is permitted. Applications must be submitted to the Pratt office by early June.

Overall, 2005's 140-animal harvest included 126 bucks, 10 does and four fawns. Peek believes that a 10 to 15 percent increase in firearm licenses is possible in '06 -- good news for Kansas hunters.

In fact, it sounds as if good news about the pronghorns extends throughout the Great Plains!

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