Great Plains 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

If you measure a successful deer season by the number of tags that you fill and the amount of meat in your freezer, then here's where in the Great Plains you should concentrate your hunting efforts this fall. (October 2007)

Photo by Kenny Bahr.

Forgive the cliché -- but the truth about the 2007 Great Plains deer season is: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

From north to south -- across the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas -- hunters enjoyed outstanding seasons in 2006 with record or near-record harvest numbers. That fact notwithstanding, biologists from all four states indicate that deer populations are continuing to grow, and that the need for more antlerless harvest to help keep those populations in check will increase right along with them.

No matter where in the Great Plains you live or plan to hunt, it's the case that managing the region's collective deer herd for overall health and hunting opportunity is our wildlife agencies' primary goal -- and while that state of affairs is no different than it's ever been, more people seem more keenly aware of it than ever before.

If you don't believe that's significant, think again. Because hunters and landowners are more in tune with the professionals' tested methods for managing deer, the overall health of the Great Plains herd appears to be quite sound and continues to improve. Age structures, according to the biologists, are in at least decent shape.

Biologists know that when habitat adequate to sustain a given deer population so that it's healthy is available, reproduction in the herd becomes very efficient. No matter how healthy it is, a young doe will quite often bear only one fawn during its first breeding season, but in succeeding years, twins are frequently produced, and triplets aren't unheard of. Thus, even during good years, and even in places whose deer populations don't seem out of whack, hunters and managers have to pay attention to controlling numbers through antlerless harvest.

What follows is a state-by-state look at general prospects for the 2007 firearms season. Next month, we'll look at the prospects each state will offer for an encounter with the buck of a lifetime.

KANSAS

The Sunflower State's deer herd appears to be in excellent shape, according to big-game biologist Lloyd Fox of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. As the 2007 firearms season unfolds, hunters around Kansas should expect to find plenty of opportunities to fill a tag.

What follows is my take on Fox's comments, not his observation. But the data he provided suggest that Kansas is becoming more like the rest of the country when it comes to the overall hunting experience.

Consider this from Fox: "The deer population is increasing in recent years. Hunters are happier because they are seeing more deer, and hunting competition among hunters has stabilized.

"There were more opportunities to hunt deer in recent years than there were in the past. While competition among hunters for a place to hunt has increased and hunting pressure has caused deer to be more elusive than they were 10 to 15 years ago, hunters are adapting."

Sound familiar? Throughout the whitetail's current range in the U.S., many of the elements Fox just described already exist, and have for some time. That doesn't mean Kansas' reputation as a big-buck destination is diminishing; in fact, it has nothing to do with big bucks. What it does have to do with are the robust health throughout most of its range of Kansas' deer herd and the consequent highly promising prospects for those looking to fill their tags and put some venison in their freezers this season.

You won't find any significant regulation changes for 2007. Fox stated that the modern firearms season is expected to open on Nov. 28 and run through Dec. 9.

Tag availability for residents is open (no lottery); Fox speculated that about 53,000 permits will be sold. He reported that 10,626 non-resident tags (whitetail, either-sex) were available by drawing, and that 50 percent of them go to residents who may transfer them.

In the table accompanying this story, you'll see that deer management units nos. 2 and 17 are among Fox's top picks for hunters more interested in filling a tag than in filling out a trophy measurement form. He emphasized that both of these units encompass areas of Kansas with low deer densities. The bottom line, then, is simple: If you're able to find the deer and gain permission to hunt them, you'll stand an outstanding chance of filling your tag.

Fox pointed out that last winter was among the most severe in many decades throughout western Kansas, and that though winter mortality there was lower than might have been the case farther north in the Great Plains, it still challenged the deer herd in that part of the state. He also emphasized that vast regions of western Kansas might have overall deer densities of only a couple of deer per square mile. Out west, Kansas whitetails tend to bunch into large social groups. To be successful on what is one of the most challenging of Great Plains deer hunts, you'll have to invest the scouting time necessary to locate the herds.

NEBRASKA

If you ever wanted to go after deer in Nebraska, here's hoping you have a 2007 tag and are ready for the firearms season -- because information provided by state biologist Kit Hams makes it clear that, for Cornhusker deer hunters, these are the good ol' days.

Hams' portrayal of the 2006 season: "outstanding, with a record-high harvest of 65,000." He added that hunter success rates and the ages of harvested bucks were higher than expected. The mule deer harvest also was a record.

The firearms season runs Nov. 10-18. There also will be a late season for antlerless deer Jan. 1-15.

"We will have a record number of antlerless permits available," Hams said. "We need increased harvest of antlerless deer to control the deer herd. Non-resident antlerless permits are only $55."

He noted that those wanting the ability to hunt deer statewide, in any management unit, can buy a premium-priced tag for the November season. And since no quotas are placed on that permit, it'll be available through the end of the season.

In Nebraska as in Kansas, Hams noted, the herd continues to grow. "Our deer herd is smaller than those in any neighboring state, and we're trying to keep it that way," he said, "but it's also the highest we have ever had." He added that the habitat along the Missouri and Platte River corridors supports the highest deer densities -- in some eastern Nebra

ska areas it exceeds 30 deer per square mile -- while some areas in the southern Panhandle have only a deer per square mile.

Interestingly, even though this story focuses on simply filling a tag, Hams noted that hunters out for the November firearms season stand a good chance of an encounter with an older buck. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staff aged more than 20,000 harvested bucks last season, Hams said, and found that 54 percent of the whitetail bucks and 63 percent of the mule deer bucks were 2 or older. The percentage of older bucks continues to increase as the state rebounds from losses to epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease that occurred in 2004 and 2005.

Weather cooperated with Nebraska deer over the past year, which gives Hams another reason to characterize the state's current population as "likely at a record high and increasing." When you see management units with hunter success rates exceeding 60 percent, it's easy to see how this season shapes up to be outstanding again through the Cornhusker State.

Hams added that 15 of the state's 18 management units had hunter success rates of at least 59 percent. When you take into account diversity of habitat, the spectrum of deer densities and the dynamics of hunting pressure, that number looks even better, indicating that hunters throughout the state are going to find areas whose deer numbers will afford them a good chance of filling their tags.

Here's another neat element of Nebraska deer season: Youth hunters have no permit quotas, and they can hunt the November season. If you know youngsters even a little interested in deer hunting, this would be a great season to invite them along and help them fall in love with a little piece of the Great Plains deer woods.

SOUTH DAKOTA

In reporting on South Dakota's prospects as the 2007 deer season got set to open, biologist Ted Benzon sounded a lot like his Great Plains counterparts to the north and south, describing the 2006 season as a good one. He noted that a mild winter enabled the state's deer herd to evade significant weather-related mortality through the cold months.

The management units he spotlighted for hunters wanting to fill tags this season comprise a group with success rates all at 57 percent or higher, with three of the five at 65 percent or higher. Take those numbers into consideration and factor in another mild winter, and you'll find little reason to believe that South Dakotans won't enjoy another great firearms season this fall and winter.

Season dates vary by region here, and rather more so than in any of the other Great Plains states. Here they are for 2007: Black Hills, Nov. 1-30; West River, Nov. 10 through Dec. 3, and Jan. 1-9 2008; East River, Nov. 17 through Dec. 9, and Jan. 1-9 2008.

South Dakota Highway 20 in the northwest corner of the state bisects two of the counties -- Harding and Perkins -- that Benzon pointed to as hot bets for a 2007 firearms hunt. The other three -- Brown, Spink and Edmunds -- are in east-central and northeastern South Dakota; think of them as the counties that surround the intersection in Aberdeen of U.S. highways 12 and 281. They stretch out quite a way, of course, because they're fairly large, and so provide plenty of possibility.

According to Benzon, South Dakota hunters shouldn't expect any major regulation changes from 2006. He went on to remark on a statewide deer density of more than five deer per square mile, and said that state wildlife managers are hoping for additional doe harvest this season in all regions. As has been proposed in the segments of this story covering the other Great Plains states, pockets will be found throughout South Dakota whose densities are undoubtedly either significantly higher or significantly lower than the average.

That said, those who take the time to scout, and to talk to landowners and local/regional biologists, are going to be steered towards the areas in which solid numbers of deer are available for hunting and harvest. As in the rest of the Great Plains, you'll need to do some homework, but the reward for the effort will be a real chance at taking a deer.

Benzon added that roughly half of all the South Dakota bucks harvested are at least 2 years old. Although the prospects for trophy hunting in all four states will be covered next month, there's good reason to believe that even those interested mainly in taking venison for the freezer stand a better-than-average chance of encountering a buck 2 1/2 years old or older.

NORTH DAKOTA

More than 148,000 permits will be available to deer hunters this season, reported North Dakota biologist Bill Jensen. The modern firearms season will run from Nov. 10-26.

Jensen's projected pattern of success for this season's North Dakota hunters differs slightly from the one that revealed itself in 2006. Last year, the top units for those wanting fill a tag were thought to include units 2E, 2L, 2F1, 2F2 and 2K1. With the 2007 season about to unfold, hunters should be looking at Units 2K2, 2C, 2F2, 2J2 and 4F. Note, in particular, Unit 4F, which is far removed from the rest of the best areas, which primarily take hunters into east-central and northeastern North Dakota. What happened there?

Jensen's succinct explanation: "We are focusing hunting pressure on the northeastern and southwestern portions of the state," he said, adding that mild weather conditions inarguably played a role in the state's having enjoyed another good hunting season, from a harvest standpoint, in 2006. Little reason, then, to imagine that 2007 will be much different.

Jensen noted only one change that hunters should be aware of. "The boundary between 2L and 2K2 will follow the route of new construction of (U.S.) Highway 281," he reported.

As you review on a North Dakota map that shows at least some topographic and/or geographic features the boundaries of the management units designated by Jensen as best bets for filling a 2007 tag, it seems evident that here, as throughout the rest of the Great Plains, habitat associated with stream and river drainages is key. Look at that southwestern Unit 4F, for example: Anyone planning to be on stand in that unit should definitely be scouting -- and trying to gain permission to hunt -- land that includes the Little Missouri River.

In the units mentioned in east-central and northeastern North Dakota, land featuring habitat shaped by river drainages should also provide appropriate deer habitat. Look to the Red River in the northeast corner of the state, at Pipestem Creek and the James, Sheyenne and Maple rivers in east-central North Dakota.

This isn't to suggest that you can't do without water if you're to have deer hunting of quality. But the fact remains that habitat associated with river and creek drainages draws deer and other wildlife like iron filings to a magnet. If you gain permission to go afield on a parcel in one of those drainages, your scouting is likely to uncover more potential-filled hunting spots than you'll meet with places lacking water.

Remember, too, that state game officials are charged with managing hunting resources for the public'

s benefit and enjoyment. None of the biologists who supplied information for this deer preview is going to steer you or any hunter into areas where you won't have a really good chance of filling your tag. Heed their advice, and make your hunting plans with that advice in mind.

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