Great Plains Pronghorn Preview

Our region has been blessed with good numbers of pronghorn antelope and good weather to sustain the herds. That's why this year's hunts should be some of our best ever! (August 2007)

Photo by Michael H. Francis

Years ago, on a bitterly cold, windblown January day, I watched a pronghorn buck dash across the two-lane highway I was driving on. With the winter sun low on the Great Plains horizon, brutal blasts from the north created a snowstorm in the same way that hot, dry winds kick up sandstorms -- blowing dry, powdery snow into a blinding sheet of frozen particles. Not a cloud was to be found in the bluebird sky that day, but along that unprotected stretch of pavement, visibility was often next to zero because of that windblown snow.

I remember thinking how fortunate I was that the pronghorn had decided to cross while the wind had died just a little. He was far enough away that I wouldn't have hit him, but in that blowing snow, I also wouldn't have seen him.

And that would've been a shame!

What a privilege it is to see one of these animals at full run. What a privilege it is to be able to write about them -- and to hunt them.

Did you know that Antilocapra americana, the pronghorn, is the only species within the family Antilocapridae? It's hard to dispute that this amazingly special animal is unique among all of the Great Plains big-game species.

Do a quick online search for information on the pronghorn, as I did after that brief encounter with my roadside antelope way back when. You'll learn some other amazing things about these creatures -- for example, that fossils indicate that pronghorns have been around in their present form for more than a million years. Records suggest that, at one time, pronghorns on the American plains may have numbered close to 40 million. Can you imagine what that looked like?

Pronghorns can run at speeds approaching 60 miles per hour. And they have amazing vision: In a description of pronghorns found on the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Web site, author Antonia Gorog likens a pronghorn's visual acuity to that of a human looking through 8X binoculars.

The bottom line is that pronghorns make the Great Plains even more special. These animals make their homes in portions of the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas, and in numbers large enough to permit hunting. Recent mild winters also have helped their numbers grow throughout their range.

What follows is a look at prospects for the 2007 pronghorn hunting seasons in each of the Great Plains states. In general, you can expect pretty good hunting throughout the region.

The following information is based on data provided to Great Plains Game & Fish prior to the final determination of specific season dates and license quotas in some states. In every case, however, state officials suggested very little change, if any, from 2006 regulations. As a result, the following should accurately represent what has been adopted by all four states for the 2007 season.

NORTH DAKOTA

The most significant piece of information that North Dakota pronghorn hunters should keep in mind is this: "Pronghorn numbers are at or above objective in all management regions," offered state biologist Bruce Stillings. "The statewide population estimate is 12,565."

So, despite steps taken to manage for a stable population through expanding hunter opportunities, North Dakota's pronghorn resource is strong.

Stillings also noted the effects of another mild winter. "There were no winter-related mortalities to collared pronghorns," he said. The core message here is that North Dakota again should offer some of the best pronghorn hunting opportunities in the Great Plains.

This is especially important to non-residents who might be considering a pronghorn hunt, since unlimited archery tags are likely to be available.

Final permit and season frameworks hadn't been set when I talked to Stillings, who expected things to be similar to last season's framework. Here's what that season looked like.

Bow season opened at noon on Sept. 1 and closed on Oct. 8. Any pronghorn was legal for a bowhunter, and license holders could hunt in any open unit.

If you visit the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's Web site at www.gf.nd.gov, you'll find a note that non-residents may not hunt on certain lands owned or leased by the state during the first week of pheasant season. But that was Oct. 14-20 last season, so this restriction doesn't affect non-resident bowhunters who are out after pronghorns. (Non-residents, by the way, can hunt pronghorns only during the archery season. Firearms tags are available to North Dakota residents only.)

A total of 16 management units -- all of them in the southwest portion of the state -- were open to pronghorn hunting last season. Expect similar, if not identical, boundaries for the 2007 seasons.

All units were open with unlimited tags for archery hunters. Gun tag ceilings were established by management unit, and they also are likely to be similar in 2007. Unit 4A, bounded by U.S. 85 on the east and U.S. 12 on the north, had the highest number of permits available. The department even set a split season in this unit, with 650 permits available for the early season, and another 500 available for the late season.

The early season opened at noon on Oct. 6 and closed on Oct. 15, with 250 any-pronghorn tags and 400 doe/fawn tags available. The late season ran Oct. 13-22, with 250 any-pronghorn and 250 doe/fawn tags available.

The other management units had a 16 1/2-day season that opened at noon Oct. 6 and closed on Oct. 22.

Legal hunting hours are basically the fairly traditional half-hour before sunrise to half-hour after sunset (except for the noon start on opening days). Remember the following, taken from state regulations, about the end to your daily pronghorn hunts in North Dakota: "Hunters must cease any hunting activity, leave any stand or blind, and must be in the process of leaving the field at the close of shooting hours (a half-hour after sunset)."

SOUTH DAKOTA

As good as North Dakota's 2007 pronghorn season is shaping up, it pales in comparison to that for its neighbor to the south. In fact, based on the numbers, it's not a stretch to call this state the home of the Great Plains' best pronghorn hunting.

Hunters last year took more than 12,000 pronghorns in South Dakota. Whereas Stillings estimated a statewide population of slightly more than 12,500 pronghorns in North Dakota, South Dakota hunters harvested almost that many animals last season.

The total tags filled break down to 11,799 by gun hunters and 503 by bowhunters. The 2006 pre-season estimate of the state's pronghorn population was 56,000 animals. "Winter should not have affected (our) numbers," said South Dakota biologist Ted Benzon, who added that his state too experienced another relatively mild winter.

Unlimited archery tags most likely will be available throughout the archery season, which should open around the third week of August and run through the end of October. The 2006 season went from Aug. 19 to Oct. 31.

As noted on the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks' Web site, pronghorn hunting here is limited to the West River area of the state. Most pronghorns are going to be using private land, so you'll need to do some advance scouting and visiting to obtain permission for the places you want to hunt.

Although archery tags are expected to be unlimited again this season, bowhunters will have to buy their tags in one of three ways: in person at the Pierre licensing office, by mail using a printed application, or online using a credit card. Each hunter can buy one archery license, although some management units will have two-tag licenses available.

Firearms season frameworks varied by management unit last season, and that likely is the case again this year. By the time you read this, the licensing process likely will be complete for firearms hunting.

Prices for South Dakota tags are definitely reasonable. Non-resident tags for one animal were $195 last season, and a tag for two pronghorns was $245. Resident prices were $35 and $45, respectively. Residents also had the option of buying antlerless-only licenses for $15 (one tag) or $25 (two tags).

Benzon noted that the northernmost hunting units in the area open for pronghorns are the ones traditionally offering the highest densities, and there's no reason to expect anything different this year.

South Dakota conducts thorough surveys with hunters annually to gauge their satisfaction with their experiences during various hunting seasons. These surveys also provide significant data covering harvest success and those areas with the highest success rates.

Just remember that, in terms of sheer numbers, South Dakota is the capital of Great Plains pronghorn hunting. And the country you'll be hunting is some of the most striking and memorable in the entire region.

NEBRASKA

South of the Dakotas, Great Plains pronghorn numbers drop dramatically. According to Nebraska Game and Parks Commission big-game biologist Kit Hams, Cornhusker hunters will find a population of 6,000-7,000 animals this season.

"Our population is low due to seven years of drought," said Hams. Of course, the mild Great Plains winters of recent years means that Nebraska pronghorns haven't dealt with the dangers of harsh winter weather. Hams said he was "not aware of any significant mortality" as spring arrived in the state.

As you might expect in a state with moderate pronghorn numbers, hunting pressure and harvest are dramatically lower than what we've discussed so far in the Dakotas. Even though Nebraska sells unlimited archery tags, for example, there were only 480 bow tags sold last season. Those went to 419 residents and 61 non-residents.

In Nebraska, only residents can obtain a firearms antelope tag. Last season, Hams said, the state sold 572 rifle and/or muzzleloader tags.

Hunters filled a total of 449 tags last season -- 313 by rifle, 73 by muzzleloader and 63 by bow. Those numbers translate to success rates of 69 percent, 63 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Interestingly, the archery success rate in the Cornhusker State is dramatically lower than in South Dakota, but about the same as in Kansas, which you'll see later. It's a stretch to call it "hunting pressure" when fewer than 500 hunters are out during bow season in a state with more than 6,000 pronghorns.

The bottom line is that smaller populations will challenge bowhunters in Nebraska. Bow season for pronghorns this year will have three segments: It will open Aug. 20, close from Oct. 13-28, reopen, close again Nov. 10-18, and reopen through Dec. 31.

Resident muzzleloader hunters have their season during the first segment of the archery campaign. The blackpowder season will run Sept. 15-20. Modern firearms hunters hunt Oct. 13-28.

Hams recommended the Oglala National Grasslands and the North Sioux pronghorn unit as offering the best hunting prospects in the state. In general, the northwest corner of Nebraska is home to the best hunting.

As noted on the NGPC Web site, www.ngpc.state.ne.us, the highest densities are in north Sioux and Dawes counties. An aerial survey completed in the early 1990s showed a pronghorn density in the North Sioux Management Unit of five pronghorns per square mile, while the density for the entire Nebraska Panhandle was less than one antelope per square mile.

So there definitely is a pronghorn hotspot in Nebraska that comprises the areas Hams mentioned. That being said, however, Hams offered the following thoughts especially to bowhunters and, as a result, non-residents:

"Landowner access and undisturbed (archery) pronghorn hunting is best obtained in areas that are open to hunting other than the North Sioux Unit. Populations are small, but landowners generally provide hunting permission."

As is the case elsewhere in the Great Plains, Nebraska's pronghorn licenses are very reasonable. Resident fees are $28 for a tag and $13 for a habitat stamp. Non-residents also need the $13 habitat stamp, and a non-resident archery tag will set them back $133.

KANSAS

The Sunflower State's pronghorn population continues to grow steadily, according to biologist Matt Peek. However, Kansas still supports the lowest number of antelope in all the Great Plains.

"Our population has been slowly increasing over the past several years," Peek said. "We estimate there are approximately 2,000 pronghorns in the state."

Whether that growth will continue this year seems questionable, given a fairly harsh winter (by Kansas standards) in the pronghorn range. "Winter conditions were significantly worse than usual," Peek offered, "particularly in the northern part of the pronghorn range, where several feet of snow fell in a short period of time and remained for weeks."

The effects of the storm could prove to be mixed. KDWP biologist Matt Peek feared on the one hand that Kansas do

es would be in worse-than-usual physical condition coming out of winter, but hoped on the other that the precipitation would make for better-than-usual plant growth for nutrition and cover.

According to Peek, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks had not documented any significant big-game mortality as a result, but that the effect on 2007 fawn production is still unknown. The effects of the storm could prove to be mixed. Peek feared on the one hand that does would be in worse-than-usual physical condition coming out of winter, but hoped on the other that the precipitation would make for better-than-usual plant growth for nutrition and cover. "That should offset most negatives associated with that storm," he concluded.

At first glance, many hunters would likely tell you that the area in the northwest part of the state known as the Kansas badlands is the most likely home to the best pronghorn numbers in the state.

Nope.

You actually have to stay south of Interstate 70 to find land open to hunting. There are three firearms units open -- they are the same as deer management units Nos. 2, 17 and 18. The single archery unit actually comprises those three firearms units.

Archery tags are unlimited, and this is only the second season that non-resident hunting will be open. General resident tags are $40 each, and landowner tenant tags are $20 each. The non-resident bow tags sell for $200 each, plus there is a $5 application fee for all tags.

Last year, pronghorn hunters in Kansas harvested a total of only 138 antelope out of 370 permits issued -- 25 by bowhunters, 26 by muzzleloader hunters and 87 by modern firearms hunters.

If you look on the KDWP Web site, www.kdwp.state.ks.us, you'll find the all-time best pronghorns taken in the Sunflower State by bowhunters and by gun hunters. Of the 20 animals listed -- 10 each for bows and firearms -- only two didn't come from Sherman, Thomas or Wallace counties. These three are in the northern part of the area open to pronghorn hunting in Kansas, and all are part of firearms management hunt No. 2.

One trophy came from Logan County in 1990, and another from Hamilton County in 1988. And in case you wondered whether the drought Hams mentioned in Nebraska had affected Kansas, only three of the trophy pronghorns on the two lists have been taken since 2000.

Although not finalized as this story was written, you should expect the 2007 Kansas antelope seasons to run about like this: Sept. 22-30 and Oct. 13-31 for archery; Oct. 1-8 for muzzleloaders; and Oct. 5-8 for modern firearms. The gun tags are available to residents only under a lottery system, and those have been awarded by now. Archery tags will be available through the next-to-last day of that season.

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