The Great Plains states enjoy a multitude of hunting opportunities for deer, and officials across the region are optimistic that the upcoming seasons should be productive for hunters. Nebraska is projecting a great whitetail season and what could be among the best mule deer harvest ever, with the state about to reach the carrying capacity of its land for mulies. South Dakota's deer numbers are building, and North Dakota had the mildest winter in at least 60 years, which should translate to more opportunities for hunter success. Also Kansas has recently experienced some of the best deer hunting in years, although the state has had some CWD and EHD occurrences.
Shane Hesting, disease coordinator for Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism (KDWPT), said, "I believe that the next three to five years should produce some of the best deer hunting in the history of Kansas." The total deer harvest for 2015 was 97,000 deer, about 80 percent whitetails. That total harvest was about the same as numbers officials provided for the 2014 season recap.
Kansas deer hunting seems to have caught fire, possibly due to the number of TV shows and articles publicizing the big bucks there. You may want to plan your Kansas deer hunt around the 5th of December, as Hesting noted, "Dec. 5, 2015, saw the highest number of whitetails harvested during the rifle deer season."
The eastern third of the state is where the largest whitetail herd resides, including Deer Management Units 8-10, 19, 6 and 11-15, Hesting reported. "Unit 19 in Johnson County will have an extended season into January for antlerless deer only as will some other units."
The largest whitetail deer population is in the eastern one-third of Kansas. State biologists estimate a population of 500,000 to 600,000 deer. Hesting believes that at least two-thirds or more are in the eastern management units.
Residents of Kansas can purchase any season whitetail deer tags, and nonresidents can buy a muzzleloader whitetail deer combo license, including one buck and one antlerless deer, or an archery license for whitetails only. Your best bet to take a mature whitetail is during archery season. The Kansas rut occurs before rifle season arrives. But bucks are chasing does into December, often when the second rut occurs.
Kansas mule deer are found primarily in the western half of the state. Deer Management Units 1, 2, 17, 18 and the western half of Unit 3 with their short grass prairies provide ideal mule deer habitat.
"Kansas has had some EHD, with about 7 confirmed cases in 2015," Hesting noted. "EHD seems to be confined to the eastern third of Kansas. In Units 1, 2 and 3 in northwestern Kansas is where deer have been discovered with Chronic Wasting Disease. Hunters shouldn't eat the meat from a CWD deer. If you're hunting in an area with deer known to have CWD, have your deer tested."
Kit Hams, big game program manager for the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, said, "We have enough deer permits for most anyone who wants to hunt anywhere in Nebraska, except for the Frenchman Unit that homes double the number of mule deer of any of our other units and is one of our best big deer units also."
The whitetail deer population hit an all time high record several years ago, but today the state has 200,000 to 225,000 whitetails. In 2012, a huge EHD outbreak in whitetails caused the loss of about one-third of the herd. But from 2014-2016, Nebraska whitetails have increased steadily, with a 2015 harvest of about 28,000. Due to good rainfall, the whitetail herd has increased in numbers. Nebraska has the best whitetail populations because of more water and corn there.
"With the Missouri and the Platte rivers bordering Sarpy County, it homes the best Nebraska whitetail hunting," Hams reported.
Although Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) are scattered throughout eastern Nebraska, Hams recommends hunting private lands for less hunting pressure during the nine-day firearm season. The estimated 18,000 bowhunters may have the best chances to find and take nice bucks on public and private lands of any hunters.
For the public land gun hunters, the Pine Ridge National Forest in northwestern Nebraska, the Bessey Division of the Nebraska National Forests in central Nebraska and public reservoirs around southwest or south-central Nebraska may be the most productive, as well as around the Niobrara River. Nebraska has 300,000 acres of public access, and the hunter atlas shows the location of the public hunting areas with the roads, lakes and rivers marked.
The Harlan County Reservoir includes an abundance of timber, a river and one of Nebraska's highest deer densities on 17,750 public access acres surrounding the reservoir and 40,000 private acres. This reservoir accounts for about 50 percent of the whitetails harvested in Harlan County.
The Bessey Division is a Sandhills type ecosystem, with one-third of this area consisting of trees planted 100 years ago. The area homes a good whitetail deer population.
Hams mentioned, "Nonresident hunter have the best opportunities here for taking a nice whitetail or a mule deer buck during archery or blackpowder seasons."
Nebraska's state atlas and hunting guide show the counties historically with one whitetail buck harvested per square mile as Harlan, Nance, Johnson, Washington, Dakota, Howard, Boyd, Lancaster, Otoe, Pawnee and Sarpy. However, Hams advised that southwestern Nebraska's Frenchman WMA in Frontier, Hayes and Hitchcock counties has about 50 bucks harvested per 100 square miles.
To take mule deer, the units in the western part of the state are stand-outs, including the Keya Paha and Sandhill units. The Keya Paha unit has the Niobrara River running through it, with small WMAs and National Wildlife Refuge lands there, attracting many archery hunters.
You can walk in or ride horses in the refuge lands, but no wheeled vehicles are permitted. Many archers there are nonresidents. The Niobrara River is in a deep canyon, heavily forested on both sides with plenty of croplands on the north and the south ends of the river. Both sides of the river are privately owned.
The Sandhills area also has the Niobrara River running through it, but the farther west you go, the fewer trees you'll see. The deer density is about one or two deer per square mile with a central watering system or a wet meadow with food for these deer that have to hide between the dunes.
Public hunting options in the Sandhills include the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, offering 115,000 acres and walk-in access. Also the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge has its western two-thirds of about 35,000 acres in the Sandhills.
The 2015 mule deer harvest was around 9,000. Nebraska's increase in mule deer numbers is due to landowners becoming more tolerant of mule deer, since hunters willingly pay for hunting rights. Nebraska also had a significant die-off a few years ago, causing the state to reduce the number of mule deer doe tags.
When looking at overall 2015 harvest numbers from Nebraska Game and Parks for both whitetail and mule deer adult bucks, the Frenchman Unit leads, with 3,551 deer harvested. Wahoo is second, with just over 3,200 deer harvested. Buffalo recorded 2,902, while Republican recorded a harvest of 2,848. Blue Southeast topped 2,600.
Andy Lindbloom, senior big game wildlife biologist for South Dakota, noted: "Biologists are recommending an 8.9 percent increase in our firearms licenses for 2016 deer because of low deer harvest rates, mild winters and very few outbreaks of EHD. Some of South Dakota's whitetail and mule deer have been radio collared, and biologists have seen good adult, fawn and juvenile deer survival."
Lindbloom believes that the whitetail numbers are increasing faster than the mule deer numbers.
"Although whitetail opportunities are in all South Dakota's wildlife management units, last year the Black Hills Unit reported the highest harvest; the Faulk County Unit 28 placed second; and Tripp County Unit 60, Edmunds County Unit 26 and Brown County Unit 3 completed the list of highest deer harvest numbers and good habitat."
Last year the top five units for mule deer harvest were: 31A in Haakon County; Unit 49B in the eastern part of Meade County; Unit 2A in parts of Pennington and Meade counties; Unit 53C in Perkins County; and the Black Hills area.
Last year's harvest for whitetails was about 46,900 animals and 6,000 mule deer, wildlife officials reported.
What follows are the top units for total deer harvest (whitetail and mule deer) by firearm and archery hunters last season, as reported by SDGFP:
Firearms: BH1 (Black Hills): 2,916; 28A (Faulk): 1,622; 60A (Tripp): 1,320; 26A (Edmunds): 1,287; 30A (Gregory): 1,029 Archery: BH1 (Black Hills): 535; 01A (Minnehaha): 255; 03A (Brown): 235; 04A (Beadle): 194; 15B (SW Butte/Lawrence): 184
Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, reported: "The central and western parts of our state have increased deer numbers for 2016. Deer densities seem to be the heaviest in the western two-thirds of the state and particularly in the southwestern portion of the state."
The PLOTS (private land open to sportsmen) Guide will give you maps of all the areas open to hunting in the state. North Dakota has leased these private lands for public hunting. Learn more on the NDGF website.
The number of deer licenses available for hunters in 2016 will be 49,000 for rifle season, and bowhunting licenses can be bought over the counter. Jensen expects the hunter success ratio to be about the same as in 2015.
For North Dakota whitetails, Jensen recommended several units that have been at or above management objective recently. The units for whitetail at or above objective include 3F1, 3F2 and 4F.
The Badlands along the Montana border home the most mule deer in the Little Missouri National Grassland and also the southwestern portion of the state. Units noted for mature mule deer include 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F in western North Dakota.
A total of 39,470 took approximately 26,700 deer during the 2015 deer gun hunting season, with 43,275 deer gun licenses available last year. Overall hunter success was 68 percent, with 70 percent success for antlered whitetails and 64 percent for antlerless whitetails. Mule deer buck success was 86 percent, but no mule deer doe licenses were issued in 2015. In 2015, 826 muzzleloader licenses were issued and 745 hunters harvested 348 whitetails, antlered and antlerless. A record 25,703 archery licenses, resident and nonresident, were issued in 2015, with 6,777 whitetails and 750 mule deer harvested. Last season, 4,004 youth licenses were issued, and 3,487 hunters harvested 1,832 deer.
When it comes to overall hunter success for any antlered deer, North Dakota Game and Fish officials said the top five units were 2G, 2C, 3D2, 3D1 and 3A1, each with success rates at 85 percent or greater.
For hunters across the plains, there should be no shortage of opportunities for success this season.