We'll take a look at how Great Plains deer populations are shaping up and what that means for hunters.
Great Plains deer herds heading into the dead of winter are in varying trends of upward and downward swings in population.
In North Dakota, the herd is in the process of rebounding from successive killer winters a few years ago.
South Dakota has recently experienced some drops in deer numbers, while Nebraska is enjoying a cautious growth in its deer population and record mule deer numbers.
Kansas, which has been very steady, has recorded good deer numbers for quite some time.
Dire droughts, and sometimes devastating winters, come and go, and so with them come the ups-and-downs in deer totals. These population changes are going on right now in the Great Plains.
More ominous is the man-made change that is occurring — loss of excellent deer habitat due to cutbacks in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) up and down the Great Plains. CRP habitat has been one of the biggest reasons for good deer numbers here, as well as something that is vital to pheasants and all upland game. It's being reduced. So, the future of deer populations are uncertain.
Deer numbers are holding steady in most of Kansas, said Matt Peek, wildlife research biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. There have been some localized reports of fewer deer. But that is merely a local phenomenon, advised Peek. Across the state, deer herds are in good shape. And there are lots of animals to hunt.
Peek noted: "We have four different measures of the deer herd — four different metrics that measure the population — and they all at the statewide level indicate stability in recent years. That is what our surveys show."
The harvest last season was excellent, with 86,136 total deer taken.
In Kansas, the deer situation has changed so much in the past few decades that old veterans of deer hunting hardly even know it is the same state. Decades ago, just seeing a deer track while roaming the edge cover hunting quail was a special treat. And deer tracks in soft creek bank mud were not all that common. Now, deer are all over the place.
Nevertheless, it's not all good news. In Kansas, mule deer range has shrunk in the past several decades. The range has gradually moved to the west. The reason why is unknown. But the result is less mule deer hunting, and the further decline of mule deer range appears to be ongoing.
The KDWPT is presently preparing a study to find the cause.
"Mule deer are a limited resource in that there is more demand for them," reported Peek.
Another thing biologists have noticed is fewer young does are producing fawns their first year. In the past, there has been a higher percentage of six-month-olds that bred and then carried a fawn through the winter to be born the following spring. The percentage of young does doing that now has declined.
Biologists don't know why this change has occurred. It could be just a natural phenomenon that exists when reproduction is curtailed a bit as deer numbers are high across the landscape.
Kansas has not experienced the deadly winters that ravaged some deer herds farther to the north. Winters tend to be milder here.
But there continues to be a worry about chronic wasting disease, which is slowly spreading from northwestern Kansas to the south and east.
During the last hunting season, there were 186,277 deer permits in Kansas. That doesn't translate directly to hunter numbers because some hunters had more than one permit. Success rates were good, as they are expected to be when all the harvest figures are tallied up for this season.
Kansas remains a very good deer- hunting state, with some of the most stable deer populations in the Great Plains in recent years.
Overall, deer numbers in Nebraska are good right now. And hunters have lots of opportunity in the field.
Mule deer are most sought after, and they are at an all-time high in the state. But that doesn't portend as bountiful a situation as one might expect. Mule deer are only dominant in some areas of western to central Nebraska. Whitetails still predominate in the most productive deer areas, including farmland and timbered stream bottoms in the eastern part of the state.
So, hunters still must vie for the mule deer licenses that are available.
"Our mule deer population seems to be doing really well," advised Lance Hastings, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist. "It is increasing. Mule deer populations don't increase real fast, for the most part. But they do seem to be increasing more. Of course, we have pretty high numbers right now. We have been trying to slow that down with more mule deer doe tags in some of our units."
Hastings particularly likes the Frenchman Unit for mule deer. Another good choice has been the Platte Unit, which failed to completely sell out on the first drawing in 2016. But the 65 licenses that were left over were sold on first-come first-served basis within seven minutes.
"We probably have our highest mule deer densities right now," said Hastings, "higher than all-time. There is still more demand than licenses."
Whitetail deer numbers are still down somewhat from their all-time highs of a few years ago.
"Whitetail populations seem to be coming back," noted Hastings. "Some places they are coming back faster than in others. In some places there is a slow increase, which is good in our opinion. We don't want to see them come back to pre-2012 levels. We had too many then."
In Nebraska, some of the best deer hunting takes place in the stream courses that run through crop and pasture land across the state. This is where biologists are finding some of the biggest deer and some of the densest populations.
Much of this is in the fertile eastern part of Nebraska, where whitetails eat a nutritious diet of farm crops and hang out in the good cover that is along streams. That's why maintaining woody habitat is so important to deer herds, as well as other wildlife here.
Two natural limiting factors on the deer herds here are EHD disease and meningeal brain worm.
EHD kills deer around water holes, especially during hot, dry summers when it is spread by midges.
More ominous are the brain worms, which especially hits whitetails. Cattle don't get it, but goats do.
South Dakota has had a significant reduction in deer hunting permits due to a decrease in deer numbers in some areas of the state. Fortunately, the herds are so large and deer so plentiful, even during declining years, that hunters can get permits to hunt.
Particularly hard hit have been the south-central hunting units in both East River and West River. EHD disease was prevalent, and there were deer die-offs.
The result has been a reduction in tags that allow the taking of does in some units. In East River, the SDGFPD reduced antlerless permits by 44 percent and buck tags by 5 percent. In West River, doe tags were cut 33 percent and buck tags cut by 2 percent.
The reductions came after South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department biologists determined that the deer herd is not growing as quickly as previously thought. Permit reductions have been recommended for the next two years.
"They are stabilized, but they haven't taken off like we had hoped," said Chad Switzer, SDGFPD wildlife program administrator.
EHD disease has hit some local deer herds quite hard. Switzer said some landowners reported 75 to 100 dead deer in some places.
"We did experience EHD loss in some of the south-central parts of the state in East River and West River," said Switzer. "That curtailed some of our growth there from a whitetail perspective."
Even with these drops in permits, Switzer said most South Dakota hunters can get a deer permit, particularly if they are willing to travel to hunt.
West River has a good deer population, and fewer people live there. Many of the units there are relatively easy to get a permit in every year.
"If they are willing to travel, they can get one," noted Switzer. "We have a lot of deer hunters who will only hunt in their back yard; they wait four and five years. But in West River there will be some tags left over for whitetail bucks, if the historical trend continues. Not many, but there will be some available. West River has more chance of license success."
In addition, there is more public land available in West River, including national grasslands and more than 1 million acres of Black Hills National Forest. And Black Hills deer are doing quite well now, said Switzer.
"In the Black Hills things are looking real promising there for whitetails," he said. "We are seeing those numbers increase. Mule deer seem stable to increasing. We have issued more antlerless licenses, especially on the eastern fringe for antlerless whitetails."
Bowhunters have it easier. Any resident or nonresident can get a permit, and hunter success rate is relatively high, at 25 to 35 percent.
North Dakota is coming off a series of devastating deer die-offs from several hard winters.
The younger animals were the first to go. But even mature healthy deer had a hard time of it.
The herd is now rebounding, but it not yet up to where biologists and hunters want it. Still, licenses and deer numbers are now going up.
In the far northwest, the deer herds are increasing slightly now, said Jake Oster, resource biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at Williston.
"Overall, it has increased if you average everything out," reported Oster. "In the Badlands area, mule deer are just about back to objective. For whitetails in the Badlands, we don't have an objective because whatever is there is there. There is not that much habitat for them."
The uptick since those bad winters has been slow. Oster said part of central western North Dakota still has depressed deer numbers.
"But it slowly coming back up," he said. "Winter and habitat are the main limiting factors. We are losing CRP acres every year."
The CRP land is especially critical for does having fawns in spring. They like the grassy areas. And if they don't have that they tend to have fawns in shelterbelts and woody areas, which concentrates them into a small area. Then, predators feast on them.
Deer have also been slowly increasing in numbers in eastern North Dakota, said Brian Prince, NDGFD wildlife management resource supervisor at Devils Lake.
"It has been a slow, incremental climb," advised Prince. "We are still down from where we were before the three (deadly) back-to-back winters. But it appears we are coming back, given the limited habitat conditions we have got."
So, right now the NDGFD is continuing to try to build deer herds in North Dakota. Prince said the department wants a deer population that will support about 80,000 deer tags a year. In 2016, there were 44,000 issued.
"We have a way to go before we meet the needs of our constituency," he noted.