Our western prairies' pronghorn antelope offer exciting sport and, with luck, a unique trophy to those fortunate enough to draw a permit. Let's look at how this year's hunt is shaping up.
Photo by Mike Barlow
By Walt Tegtmeier
Ready to test that new spotting scope, pair of high-powered binoculars or laser rangefinder? Summer's dog days are numbered, and our first real big-game challenge of the season is just around the corner. The ghosts of the prairies will soon be fair game - and Great Plains pronghorn hunters should have more than a ghost of a chance at tagging one of these wary critters in 2004.
While the Great Plains states may not offer the terrain or the antelope numbers found in some other locations, there are plenty of chances for quality hunts in our own back yards. Eons of evolution have seen the pronghorn become a survivor, and despite prolonged drought conditions in much of our region, antelope populations remain relatively strong.
Next to habitat loss and wily predators, severe winter weather is the pronghorn's worst enemy. However, another mild winter graced most of the pronghorn's range in the Great Plains last year, which in most cases was enough to offset continued dry conditions. In a nutshell, 2004 looks like a good year for going out and getting yourself a goat.
Though it may lack the sheer numbers of pronghorns that roam its neighbor to the south, North Dakota can boast of an impressive population boom over the past few years. That trend toward increase appears to have leveled off, but hunters can expect another season similar to 2003's. However, after a harsher-than-normal 2003-04 winter (which, actually, would rate as merely average by historic standards), slightly fewer animals may be around to glass this year.
"I would expect the population growth we've experienced since 1996 to come to a halt," said Bruce Stillings, a big-game biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "We've been in such a cycle of mild winters, but this year's was a little more unkind than the past four or five. Really, it was just a dose of normal North Dakota winter. We have seen evidence of winterkilled pronghorn, particularly in the northern Badlands areas."
Annual aerial and kid-counting surveys led NDGFD biologists to estimate the statewide herd at just under 10,000 animals -right on par with last year's reckoning, this being the second consecutive year that the assessment's been in the 10,000 range. Those counts are down from modern historical highs of about 14,000 animals, which were seen in the mid-1960s and as recently as the early 1990s. However, the herd was only 7,000 strong just two years ago.
"With the winter we've had, I expect those numbers to be skewed somewhat," Stillings observed. "In the southwest, we'll still have good populations, but as you go north and east, the fewer animals you're likely to encounter." He added that there's a good chance of the number of permits issued being a bit more on the conservative side for 2004, and not just because of the tougher winter. Last season's reproductive surveys indicated a .777 fawn-to-doe ratio - a 12-year high for the state. This year, the ratio fell to .67 fawns per doe.
According to Stillings, winter conditions were less severe in the southern Badlands in Bowman County, which should make the state's best area even better in 2004. "I'd say about 20 to 30 percent of our statewide population is there," he said. "And I don't think those animals went anywhere this winter, because conditions weren't any better in Montana or east of the Bowman units."
The NDGFD biologist reports that Slope, Billings and McKenzie counties should host a solid complement of pronghorns again this year; as for the state at large, prospects for the overall quality of hunting are still fairly decent. Last year, with similar numbers of animals on the ground, 1,640 permits were issued, while the statewide kill came to 1,328, or an 81 percent success rate.
While the number of firearms permits may be reduced somewhat in 2004, archery permits will remain unlimited for both residents and non-residents. Archery permits can be purchased online, by phone or mail through the NDGFD, or over the counter at various license vendors in the southwest. The season is tentatively slated to begin Sept. 3 and run through Oct. 17.
The firearms season for residents only is scheduled to run Oct. 1-17. Permits are awarded by weighted lottery; applications were available in mid-July with an Aug. 4 deadline.
While most of North Dakota's land is privately owned, an astonishing 1.1 million acres' worth of very serviceable public hunting lands is available in the Little Missouri National Grassland in McKenzie County. Bureau of Land Management areas in the southwest also offer promising hunting opportunities. Yet, Stillings remarks, even private land is still quite accessible in most of the state's pronghorn country. Antelope herds are an unwelcome sight to many farmers and ranchers, and most are willing to grant permission to courteous hunters.
It's a good bet that the pronghorns of northwest South Dakota know nothing of the region's typically cruel winters. Most, if not all, of these animals have yet to experience one, given the comparatively pleasant conditions characterizing several consecutive winters just past - such as the winter of 2003-04. Despite prolonged drought in much of South Dakota's pronghorn range, populations remain on the upswing.
"Things are looking excellent," said Ted Benzon, senior big-game biologist for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. "Better than '03. And '03 was better than '02. We've had another very mild winter with below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures. What does our antelope in are those mean periods of two to three weeks of below-zero temps and lots of snow. We just haven't had any."
Benzon noted that antelope numbers have been increasing annually in South Dakota since 1998, with herd estimates now hovering at roughly 40,000 animals. "We wanted (the population) to build, and we issued tag numbers to allow it to build. Now we would like to keep the herds around 40,000, so this should be the beginning of our control years. We should have substantially more tags this year."
Drought doesn't seem to have affected South Dakota's pronghorns in the least. Recent aerial and ground surveys point to continued strength in the statewide herd. Benzon reports kid rates running at bout .84 per doe, and buck-to-doe ratios better than 1:2.
The SDDGFP scientist concurs with the view that drought is certainly affecting pronghorn forage. "But why it hasn't hurt our herd, I don't
know," he wondered. "Everything is different for different species. It's our wet springs that bring down our turkeys; a wet spring or a drought summer hurt our deer. A bad South Dakota winter is the downfall of our antelope, but they seem to take everything else in stride."
Statewide harvest doubled from just over 2,000 pronghorns in 1997 to more than 4,000 in 2002, Benzon offered, adding that it broke the 5,000 threshold last year and may be expected to climb even higher this season. Bowhunters achieved 25 percent success in 2004, while 68 percent of the state's gun hunters filled a tag.
With a success rate like that, nearly a three-month season, and no residency restriction on archery permits, South Dakota represents a fabulous opportunity for Great Plains bowhunters this year. The archery season typically opens in mid-August and runs through the end of October, closing briefly during the nine-day firearms season, which usually opens the first Saturday in October.
Hunters who draw a tag this year will find the densest concentrations of antelope in the northwest corner of the state. Benzon points to Harding, Butte and Perkins counties as stacking up as the primary places to go, followed, in order, by Mead, Custer and Fall River counties. He expects average numbers in areas of Hawken, Jackson and Bennett counties.
Private ranches and farmlands dominate the pronghorn's territory in South Dakota, and most of the high-end hunting requires landowner permission. Happily, Benzon reports, obtaining access to private lands in the western third of the state is hardly a daunting task - especially not for pronghorn hunters. The state also leases some private land for its Walk-In Hunting Program, some parcels of which lie in antelope country; check the annual atlas published by the SDDGFP in August.
For those willing to cover some ground, several public-land areas offer some promising prospects. Benzon rates the BLM lands in Harding and Butte counties as ranking with the best, along with the Grand River National Grassland in Perkins County.
While drought has yet to make a severely negatively impact on the Dakotas' pronghorn herds, Nebraska's antelope haven't been so lucky. Most of the state's pronghorns dwell in the arid Panhandle region. These animals like it dry, but not as dry as the past four years have been there. Though the highest goat densities are still recorded there- most particularly in the western Panhandle units - state biologists believe that overall herd numbers have declined. The statewide herd, which almost always contains fewer than 10,000 animals, has been hovering in the 6,000 to 7,000 range lately.
"Four years of drought have hurt. We're simply not getting the recruitment in year-classes," said Kit Hams, pronghorn program manager with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "Do we attribute that to fawns with low birth weights, does not coming into heat because they're stressed, poor nutrition, or a foot of snow on the ground at the wrong time? We don't know. But we do know we're seeing fewer antelope in most of our western units."
Aerial surveys in those nine units and on-the-ground landowner surveys elsewhere turned up some interesting data, as did some of last year's harvest information. Hams reports low fawn-to-doe counts in key units such as Banner and Box Butte, which had 18 and 37 fawns per 100 does, respectively. However, in the antelope stronghold of the North Sioux unit, the number reached 76. But if the results of one Panhandle horn study are any indication, there are plenty of mature bucks cruising the High Plains this year.
"We were interested in the horn length of animals at ages 2, 3 and 4, so last year we had one scorer in the region measure bucks that were brought in to the check-in stations," Hams said. Data from that study, in which 137 bucks were measured, indicated that 33 were a year old, 44 were 2 years old, 33 were age 3, and 24 were 4 years old or older. Average horn lengths were 8 inches for yearling bucks, 11 5/8 inches for 2-year-olds, 12 1/4 at 3 years, and 13 1/4 at 4 and up.
"This was just a one-year snapshot in one area, but I'm pretty happy with those results," Hams observed. "Basically, at age 2, horns are a foot long, and 75 percent of the bucks are age 2 or older.
"I was just happy to not see 60 percent yearling animals. Typically, around 50 percent are a year old. We didn't see that last year. It either means there aren't many yearlings out there or we're not harvesting young bucks."
In Hams' view, it's obviously the former. "It's not bad news to see animals getting older," he said
Owing to the estimate of a smaller herd anticipated for 2004, the number of available permits has been reduced in some units and statewide by 10 percent. A switch to all buck-only permits except during the archery season is another change from last year. "There will be 98 fewer permits this year," Hams acknowledged. Further, he stated, the state will probably keep protecting does until some recovery is perceived in the herds.
Archery permits totaled 368 in 2003, and bowhunters achieved a 13 percent success rate. Nebraska issued 275 muzzleloader permits last year; those hunters enjoyed a 59 percent success rate. Firearms permits numbered 1,468, with 56 percent of those hunters filling tags.
Nebraska's firearms permits are issued on a preference-point system, and although non-residents may apply, licenses are usually claimed by residents. However, archery permits are unlimited for resident and out-of-state hunters alike and can be purchased online or at any district office before or during the season, which opens Aug. 20 and closes Dec. 31. In any region open to firearms hunting, the archery season closes during the Oct. 9-24 gun season. Muzzleloader season is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 18 through Oct. 3.
Hams says that the highest densities of antelope will be found in the state's northwest and southwest corners, and suggests that hunters shouldn't expect to encounter anything different in 2004. "Of our major antelope counties," he said, "Sioux is easily the best, especially in the north, followed by Kimball and northern Dodge County."
Most, but not all, of Nebraska's prime pronghorn habitat lies on private land, yet access is fairly easy to obtain compared to that for deer or pheasant hunting. Hams recommends asking around the small towns and sheriff's offices in the northwest and southwest for names of willing landowners. If you're up for a physically demanding hunt - one without the aid of motorized vehicles - try hunting the public lands in the vast Sandhills region or in the Oglala National Grassland.
Though much-needed moisture has come to many parts of the state since last season, the western tier of counties - home to most of the state's pronghorns - is still recovering from consecutive years of drought. But another mild winter and some timely rains have wildlife officials cautiously optimistic about 2004.
"We're still concerned about reproduction," said Matt Peek, the prong
horn program coordinator for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, "primarily a lack of cover, which leads to predation by coyotes. There's not a lot to begin with, and when it's dry there's even less - and not nearly as many fawns survive. But this past season, even though it was dry overall, we had a wet spring; they had cover to get the kids through the birthing period. But then it got dry again."
According to Peek, statewide pronghorn numbers should be similar to last year's. Population estimates are based chiefly on winter surveys, and, Peek reports, the state's herd stands at roughly 2,000 strong. That's a decent jump from 2003, when estimates reckoned only around 1,600 animals in the state.
"Even though we had a good reproduction year, and the population may be up a hair, we are issuing the same number of permits as last year," Peek stated. "We may have some extra animals, but drought will offset that a little.
"It appears the drought might have moved some animals around in the central part of their range. Around Syracuse and Tribune, and west out to Colorado, our winter surveys showed more animals than could be attributed to reproduction from the previous year. Some may have moved eastward out of Colorado and into Kansas - or they could have come from the north, for that matter."
Look for Wallace and Sherman counties to host the heaviest concentrations of animals again this year. And, Peek says, neighboring Logan County can now be added to the mix. He cites Greeley, Hamilton and Stanton counties as other promising locations for the 2004 season.
Hunters tagged a total of 108 pronghorns in 2003 - 88 of them bucks. The firearms portion accounted for 80 animals (66 bucks), while muzzleloader hunters took 15 (11) and archers took 13 (11). All three seasons are open to residents only. The relatively low number of permits issued in Kansas each year necessitates that applicants be drawn on the basis of a statewide lottery system.
The nine-day archery season is slated for Sept. 18-26. The muzzleloader season begins immediately after on Sept. 27 and runs through Oct. 4. The firearms portion runs concurrently beginning Oct. 1 and ending Oct. 4, during which time muzzleloader hunters may use scopes. (Before Oct. 1, muzzleloaders may employ only primitive sights.)
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