Hunters across the Great Plains are eagerly awaiting the start of deer season. And there's reason to be optimistic, with deer numbers increasing in many areas. Let's take a look at a few of the highlights for the four plains states and what hunters might expect when they hit the woods and fields this season in pursuit of whitetails and mule deer.
Deer numbers in the western two-thirds of North Dakota are increasing, while being down somewhat or stable in the eastern third, noted Bill jensen, biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Mule deer are popular here. There is a drawing for permits. Typically, there have been 70,000 to 80,000 applicants. Last year, they vied for the 49,000 permits in the first drawing.
Right now the NDGFD is trying to build the herds to greater population levels. Deer were hammered by three severe winters in a row on the northern Plains.
"Prior to 2014 we had three hard winters in a row," noted Jensen. "We will get numbers back up to where want. Part of it depends on weather and how much habitat we will have left."
Like in South Dakota, wetlands are being drained and habitat destroyed for crop fields.
"It is a loss of habitat primarily," said Jensen. "Wetland drainage, tree rows are being taken out. There is just a lot of land being converted from habitat to agriculture practices."
The NDGFD plans to continue increasing the deer herd. Hunters want more deer. And the number of animals is still low compared to peak years in the past. Still, the herd has come back enough from the hard winters to allow more hunting.
"We are planning on making some modest (license) increases this year," noted Jensen. "We would like to bring gun licenses up to 65,000 to 70,000 so that most people could get a deer license. Maybe a little more. Part of it comes down to landowner tolerence, too. I guess I would put the range from 65,000 to 75,000. Some people do not get licenses, even residents."
Though there remains a drawing for firearms licenses and archery mule deer licenses, whitetail archery licenses are sold over-the-counter.
The South Dakota mule deer population is on an upswing, reported Corey Huxoll, wildlife biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Mule deer are highly popular here. They're most prevalent in the western half of the state.
SDGFP has been managing to increase the mule deer numbers by reducing the number of "any deer" licenses. That cuts harvest of does, and more fawns are born.
"We are trying to build the population, and it seems to be responding well," noted Huxoll.
Last year, West River had good hunter success rates. A natural setback has plagued the whitetail populations in recent years — EHD, epizootic hemorraghic disease. It is spread by midges, very small insects not normally noticed much by people, unless those people are fishermen pursuing finicky trout in Black Hills waters.
Midges flourish in shallow waters, especially those with muddy bottoms. In drought times, deer congregate near these prairie ponds and EHD sometimes strikes, leaving dead deer carcasses in its path.
"Deer are more exposed to the disease when they are concentrated," said Huxoll. "When the deer get it they have extreme symptoms of thirst and they go to these water holes and all you see are the dead ones."
There aren't any big changes in deer numbers for hunters heading into the field this fall. Deer numbers are good, and hunters should do well.
"Both whitetail and mule deer are basically unchanged from last year," reported Kit Hams, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission big game program manager. "Mule deer are a bit higher, but not by a large number. We harvested about 9,200 mule deer bucks. That is about the highest it has ever been. The mule deer buck harvest over the last 20 years has been 6,000 to 9,000 range."
The record harvest can be somewhat misleading because the majority of deer in Nebraska are whitetails. About three-fourths of the harvest is whitetails.
But mule deer are highly popular in the state. Both mule deer and whitetails here grow huge antlers eating corn, alfalfa and other good farmland food.
Hams said his department may seek to increase deer number somewhat in the eastern part of the state. In the southwest, he noted seasons to harvest more antlerless deer may be put in place to reduce the deer numbers somewhat there.
"With whitetails, we have been keeping our thumb on them," he said. "We will probably let up some this year. There were more deer than we could handle five or six years ago. The drought helped reduce that herd, and we have been reluctant to let it grow unchecked. But we will probably allow some growth this year, especially in the east."
It's in eastern Nebraska where whitetails predominate. Dense populations of the animals inhabit the mix of stream riparian habitat, cropland and grasslands there.
Western areas have more mule deer, but deer densities are lower. And in some places when the cold weather and snow sets in they become nearly devoid of migrating deer.
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Deer numbers are stable right now in Kansas, which means good hunting again.
But there have been some comments coming in that indicate there may be fewer deer in some isolated areas, said Matt Peek, acting deer biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
"Our population monitoring shows it about the same," he noted. "We look at harvest success, spotlight checking, bowhunter index and deer-car accidents."
Peek expects there to be fewer older deer this fall, but there will be more younger animals.
"The other thing that is doing on is that we are several years out of the drought so we probably had some pretty poor reproduction during 2011 and 2012," he said. "And we may have harvested a little higher percent than usual of the bucks in those years. The age structure changes some. That is not to say that there won't be mature deer out there, mature bucks, but they may be down a little bit, with more younger deer."
Overall, it should once again be good hunting.
"Populations are stable," noted Peek. "Deer hunting should be good, with some hit-and-miss in some areas."
One trend that sportsmen don't like is the gradual diminishing of the mule deer range in Kansas. And no one knows for sure why it is occurring. But the range of mule deer has been gradually moving westward.
This trend has been going on in other plains states, too, said Peek. But it seems most noticeable in Kansas. One thing that is far different here in fairly recent history is the general uptick in deer numbers. Where they were a rarity in some places 50 years ago, now deer are plentiful. So, the long-term trend has been way up.
PUBLIC HUNTING OPPORTUNiTIES
The Great Plains states have walk-in hunting
areas where sportsmen can hunt deer on land leased from private landowners, without getting permission. These programs have proven successful because the lease programs are popular with both hunters and landowners.
The drop in federal Conservation Reserve Program land from North Dakota down the plains is an ongoing trend. Much of this CRP land lost was good deer and pheasant habitat, and it was also property landowners were often willing to lease to the state game and fish departments for hunting. Much of that is now gone, or soon will be.
In Kansas and North Dakota, the lands along the federal reservoirs are quite commonly owned or managed by the state or by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and have good deer hunting, as well as habitat for all kinds of wildlife.
In Nebraska, the public lands near Fort Robinson are still very close to their wild native ecology, with good mule deer hunting.
In South Dakota, the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park comprise more than 1 million acres of the eastern-most part of the Rocky Mountains — all public land with lots of mule and whitetail deer.
Another upward trend in recent years has been the success of youth deer hunts in the Great Plains. The seasons typically take place prior to the regular firearms season, with high success rates.