Nature, as she is, will always influence deer hunting across the Great Plains.From weather patterns to disease, both mule deer and white-tailed deer across the region have been impacted the last several years. Ample rainfall sustains deer foods in many areas, while drought conditions have created seriously low supplies of deer foods in other parts of the region. And disease (see EHD in “South Dakota”) stakes its claim, too, on the condition of herds in parts of the region.
North Dakota deer herds — both whitetails and mule deer — are struggling against a moderate drought conditions, as measured by weather officials, and the resulting destruction and decline (because of the rise in crop prices) of habitat in eastern North Dakota, where herds are under the most pressure. Federal Conservation Reserve (CRP) acreage has dropped by more than half in many parts of North Dakota, and wetland drainage has hammered wildlife.
Overall, the situation has not changed much from last year when there were fewer deer here, and fewer hunters in the field — a sign of lower license sales — and both trends are likely to continue for at least the next few seasons as biologists recommend lower harvests that give deer numbers a better chance to recover as quickly as possible.
Hardest hit has been eastern North Dakota, while some increases in deer numbers have been seen in the southwest part of the state, says big-game supervisor Bruce Stillings of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “But for the most part, deer numbers are similar to last year,” he adds. “They are down from recent highs we experienced from late ’90s to 2008. Greatly down from that. During the winters of 2008-2010 we took a hit.”
Still, Nebraska deer hunters are eager to apply for state deer tags. But with deer numbers down, hunters entering the preference-point drawings for either muleys or whitetails often do so for eight to 10 years before being successful. “For whitetails, it depends on where in the state you are applying,” says big-game biologist Bill Jensen of the NDGFD. “Probably, southwest (North Dakota) is the best place to apply. For whitetails the demand is less down there because it is farther away from the urban centers.”
Hunters interested in taking a mule deer can expect lowered numbers of doe tags. Mule deer management objectives, wildlife officials say, is to keep doe numbers up with hopes of producing more fawns next spring.
South Dakota game biologists say state deer herds took a sharp downturn the last several years, and they expect growth to be only slow in some local herds. Through the hunting season of 2010-11, deer numbers stood at all-time highs … until EHD — Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, a viral disease that’s usually fatal, and stands as the most common disease among white-tailed deer — embedded itself in South Dakota deer herds while northern plains winters grew intense.
Still, good hunting opportunities exist in South Dakota, says state big-game biologist Nathan Baker. No major changes are foreseen for deer hunting muleys or whitetails in South Dakota this year. The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department is on its second year of a two-year regulation cycle, so the seasons and harvests stay about the same for two years, barring weather or reproduction catastrophes.
“We aren’t doing deer season proposals, so there are no changes for the 2018 season,” says Andy Lindbloom, senior big-game coordinator of the SDGFP. “Next year we will look at the data and make two-year season proposals.”
Top hunting areas revolve more around the landscape than the hunting units. Mule deer live in the western half of the state and in the counties just east of the Missouri River. As for whitetails, they’re found statewide but are more restricted to riparian habitats in the western 50 percent or so of the state. Way west, there are quite a few mule deer and whitetails in the Black Hills National Forest.
Licenses annually sell out in most South Dakota deer-hunting units. And most application periods are closed by August 31. But South Dakota hunters who missed getting a license through the application period can still be assured of a hunt … if they will bow hunt or use muzzleloaders for hunting antlerless whitetails in January. Application must be made online for those hunts that open January 1, 2019, and close on January 15.
Approximately 150,000 mule deer are running around Nebraska, according to surveys completed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Historically, the hunting has been good, but the mule-deer harvest last fall was the highest on record, when hunters killed more than 9,800 muleys. Watch for that record to be broken again this season.
Beyond their regional distribution across western Nebraska, especially in the Sandhills and Pine Ridge regions, where mule deer are hunted depends largely on how wide the herds must roam for food. Mule deer gravitate to river drainages with trees and cover and crops that hold wildlife of all sorts. When harsher weather sets in, says chief deer biologist Kit Hams, there will be broad swaths of the state that are vacated of deer as they move not to greener pastures, but to richer food supplies. Especially barren will be shortgrass prairie and fields. And the number of property owners participating in the federal Conservation Reserve Program has declined, too, cutting deeply into acreage that would otherwise support deer and other wildlife.
Meanwhile, the best whitetails have been shot in the eastern half of Nebraska, but their population does overlap with mule deer in some parts of western Nebraska. Still, the whitetail population is below state game-management objectives, Hams says, driven by drought years that ended up killing a lot of whitetails. In 2018, Nebraska’s white-tailed deer harvest fell to just 25,000 animals from an all-time high of 38,000 in 2017.
“We are reducing the whitetail doe permits in some areas, especially the eastern units,” Hams says. “They have been slow to recover. Part of that is habitat reduction, both CRP and timber. Three-dollar corn has had its impact, and damage has been done.”
Hams says licenses in many hunting units are still available in October, but most sell out the week before the season opener — November 11, this year. That may be especially true in the Pine Ridge unit this fall. Many non-residents from Denver go there to hunt, and Hams says mule-deer permits will be reduced from 2,400 to 1,650 this year, helping the herd to grow larger and older.
This year, Kansas deer hunters can expect another excellent deer season with good numbers of animals in the field, and nothing on the immediate horizon threatens that outlook.
Hunters — residents and non-residents alike — still looking for a tag might want to head southeast, where Unit 12, in the area around Independence, could be especially good, numbers-wise, according to big-game coordinator Levi Jaster of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. That’s whitetail country, with a lot of broken farmland, stream courses and pastures. All of it holds good edge cover for whitetails (and for quail, as well). A good percentage of trophy white-tailed deer stand among the herds of southeast Kansas, too, where deer foods are plenty, and crops and mast are generally not affected by the drought conditions on the west side of the state.
Statewide, the deer population is stable and strong, Jasper says. “We haven’t had a bad disease outbreak since about 2012. That was our last EHD outbreak,” he points out, adding that Kansas winters also haven’t been hard enough to impact the state deer herds.
If you’re among deer hunters who enjoy hunting mule deer, look to western Kansas, where KDWPT wildlife biologists have been trying to boost mule deer numbers. The range of Kansas mule deer has declined, they say, over the past two decades, but they hope a planned study will reveal some insights why.
“There has been concern among hunters and landowners that they don’t see as many mule deer as in the past. We are trying to increase mule deer numbers and, hopefully, expand their range eastward to where historically it was,” Jasper says. “But we still want to minimize landowner conflict. We deal with that on an individual basis.”
FACE THE MUSIC
That’s our look at the general conditions of the deer herds — both whitetails and mule deer — across the Great Plains states. Local conditions — from the weather, to deer health, to the abundance of deer food, right up to the number of hunters afield — will dictate success for both resident, as well as non-resident hunters alike.
You need to be able to shoot well, too! Start practicing. Good hunting!
Think You’ve Got A Record-Book Buck?
You’ve shot your buck, and now you wonder if it might be record-book worthy. What do you do?The Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club are the two most prominent record-keeping authorities. B&C maintains big game records for animals taken by all hunting methods. P&Y is the archery-specific counterpart to B&C.
Each club has detailed procedures for record-book whitetail entries — found on their respective websites. Both require that the skull plate be completely intact and unaltered, and that antlers be unrepaired and unmodified. So, ensure neither are damaged while caring for your trophy.Both also require a “drying” period of at least 60 days at room temperature after harvest. Before this, clean the skull plate — again, ensuring no damage is done.
You can “green score” your buck before drying to see if it meets record-book status, but your next step after drying is contacting an official scorer. Both clubs have an online tool for locating scorers.Each club has different minimum score requirements. B&C requires typical whitetails to have a final score of 160 inches for its award book. For non-typical, it’s 185. P&Y minimums are 125 and 155 inches for typical and non-typical, respectively.
After official scoring, you’ll do additional entry paperwork and documentation according to the organization. These must be followed to the letter.
If you’re looking to add your name to one of these books, check out the December-January issue, which has an article with tips on where to hunt some of the most productive big buck areas in our four Great Plains states.