Great Plains Pronghorn Preview

Hunters all across our region anxiously await the beginning of a new season for one of the Great Plains' truly unique game animals -- and according to state biologists, this year's hunts should be memorable! (August 2008)

The difficulty in hunting pronghorns results primarily from the animals' amazing eyesight. One way to neutralize that: Watch a buck bed down and then slip around to approach it from above and behind. A lone pronghorn buck will usually be a good specimen.
Photo by Mike Blair.

Let me tell you right off that 2008 is going to see a good pronghorn season from south to north all across the Great Plains. And if you're a bowhunter, to call it just "good" might be understatement.

Make no mistake: Kansas, for example, is home to legendary white-tailed deer hunting; it's no pronghorn hotspot. Nebraska has big whitetails too -- but it's not known as a pronghorn destination, either. However, while ring-necked pheasants are kings of the Dakotas, South Dakota has an amazing pronghorn resource, and its neighbor to the north isn't too awfully far behind.

The one thing all of them have in common is unlimited archery tags, and access to undisturbed animals for those willing to work at finding landowners agreeable to granting access.

No matter which state you choose to hunt, focus your efforts on the western regions, where the Great Plains' pronghorns live and, in some cases, thrive. Not every state will have firearms permits available as you read this, but all will definitely have archery tags.

General facts about the Great Plains' pronghorn resources heading into the 2008 season (you'll find more details in the state-by-state reports below): Antelope population numbers vary considerably -- from a low of 2,000 in Kansas to more than 60,000 in South Dakota. And all four states enjoyed solid 2007 hunting seasons that fell during and/or were followed by another mild winter. Animals didn't suffer the effects of a bitter year's end, so they're in good shape throughout their range as 2008 hunts unfold.

Believe it or not, one state -- South Dakota -- finds itself in the quandary of maybe having too many pronghorns, at least in some areas. Below you'll read a biologist's call for more hunters willing to take bucks and does -- South Dakota issues double permits for firearms hunters.

Moving from south to north, here's a look at prospects for the 2008 pronghorn season.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks' Matt Peek, who works with the Sunflower State's pronghorn resource, described the 2007 season as a "very standard year" -- better news than you might think, actually, given the ferocious storm that the state endured the winter before.

Kansas' pronghorn population is stable, remaining at about 2,000 animals -- the lowest number in all of the Great Plains -- but hunting opportunities are to be found here, and last year's hunter success numbers prove it.

"Our archery success rate typically runs 10 to 15 percent," Peek said, "and it was 13 percent in 2007. Our firearms success rate was 65 percent, combined, for muzzleloaders and modern firearms. We were up a bit in muzzleloader success, and down a bit in modern firearms success."

The lack of effect from that winter storm I mentioned might surprise some, but, Peek explained, many pronghorns in the hardest-hit areas of the state simply adapted: They moved.

"They didn't move terribly far, probably about 15 miles at most," he said. "The pronghorns in central Logan and Thomas counties relocated to the Oakley vicinity, and the pronghorns in Hamilton and Greeley counties moved to the southern part of Hamilton County. Not all of them moved to escape the worst of the storm, but many did."

That willingness to hit the trail unquestionably played a role in the storm's lack of impact on Kansas' pronghorns. And in the storm's aftermath, those antelope returned to their "homes."

If you're looking to hunt pronghorns in the Sunflower State, you'll definitely need to stay in the western tier of counties. Oakley, the little town in northeastern Logan County near the spot where I-70 turns northwest for 20 or so miles to reach Colby, is a pretty good landmark for the pronghorns' eastern boundary in the Sunflower State.

Peek noted that Morton County draws a high number of hunters, it being home to the biggest chunk of public land in Kansas' pronghorn range, the Cimarron National Grassland. Morton County is part of firearms Unit 18, which, Peek noted, is seeing an increase in antelope numbers.

Even so, that might be a good bet if you have your tag -- and for any Kansas resident now reading this who doesn't have a tag, it's the only bet. You can buy archery tags over the counter through the end of the 2008 season in late October, but the application for blackpowder and modern firearms tags is months past.

An archery hunt for pronghorn might be the most challenging big game opportunity in all of the Great Plains. If you decide that you want to try it, remember that the archery unit includes a huge chunk of southwest Kansas, so you should take the time to look into private-land hunting opportunities. If you can gain access, you likely won't have to deal with much hunting pressure.

Another bowhunting opportunity that's better than it might seem on the surface belongs to Nebraska. And non-residents take note: Archery tags are unlimited, and will cost you roughly $150.

Biologist Kit Hams observed that the archery success rate last season was 15 percent, which is a good figure for bowhunting. And in Nebraska, you just might get a chance at a real trophy pronghorn, because the state has been managing the resource to improve the age-structure of its bucks.

"A few years ago, we reduced the number of firearms permits available and made them buck-only tags," Hams said. "We have seen our population increasing a little. It will do so at the rate that the available habitat and range conditions will permit. But we also have seen our buck quality increase quite a bit because of the changes."

According to Hams, the goal is for 80 percent of the bucks harvested to be at least 2 years old. Last archery season, the percentage hit 79. Total firearms numbers weren't yet available, but it's reasonable to presume that the percentage will be closer to 80 than not.

Of course, Nebraska makes available only 10

0 muzzleloader permits, with another 350 tags sold to modern firearms hunters. With a total population that Hams reckons at between 5,000 and 10,000 pronghorns, it's easy to see how Cornhusker antelope are getting the opportunity to grow in number and maturity.

"As you can imagine, our pronghorn numbers are well below the historical averages for Nebraska," he said. "The overall outlook is brighter than it's been because of the improvements we've seen through the management approach we're taking, and because habitat conditions have been fairly good recently. That does affect fawning."

In Nebraska, as in Kansas, it appears as if the best prospects for hunting come back to archery. Yes, of course -- you'll be challenging yourself because of the generally low success rate. However, you can do some things to increase your odds for success, the most important of which may be the homework necessary for gain hunting access to private land.

"A good number of our hunters head to the Oglala National Grasslands in the northwest corner of the state," Hams said. "However, the western third of the state offers some good hunting opportunities on private land. And you'll be hunting undisturbed animals for the most part, if you can get access."

What you might find surprising is Hams' notion that gaining pronghorn-hunting access to private land in Nebraska can be pretty easy. "If you can spend the time necessary to find the landowner or the person who controls hunting access," he asserted, "you'll get it." He suggested that spending a lot of time driving around "scouting" might not be the best approach to take: "If it were me, I'd be looking for the landowner and doing my best to gain permission to hunt. If you get that, he's going to know where the pronghorns are, and he'll show you."

Nebraska's archery season runs from mid-August until the end of December, closing only during the firearms seasons. And, Hams noted, "Our non-resident archery tag is one of the most inexpensive big-game tags you can find anywhere in the country."

Kick all this around if you're thinking about a pronghorn hunt this season. For the resident or the out-of-stater, the Cornhusker State is shaping up to offer some challenging but promising opportunities, especially for bowhunters.

South Dakota biologist Ted Benzon got right to the point: "We need more antelope hunters -- and we need all of them who get double permits to please harvest a doe."

What? A pronghorn population dilemma?

Not really . . . well -- not yet, anyway.

"We have areas where numbers are higher than they should be, a good bit above our management objectives," Benzon explained. "In those areas, we run the danger of getting into depredation problems -- and that can have a bad effect.

"If you have a landowner whose property can hold, say, 1,000 pronghorns, and he's OK with that, you sure don't want to let that number get out of control. If the population grows beyond what the land can support and you have some depredation, that landowner won't even want to have 500 antelope on his property."

You won't hear talk about these kinds of issues in the rest of the Great Plains. But South Dakota is the "breadbasket" of pronghorn hunting in the region, and numbers are such that hunters must play a pivotal role in helping to manage the resource.

South Dakota issues two types of "double tags." The first is an "any-pronghorn" tag combined with a "doe/kid" tag; the other provides two "doe/kid" tags. When you think about its neighbors to the south, South Dakota is the jackpot of Great Plains antelope hunting. If you find that hard to believe, consider that last season's archery success rate: an astounding 28 percent!

"We've got antelope, and we have tags to fill," Benzon said. "We should have around 60,000 animals heading into the 2008 season unless there is some freakish weather event that impacts them. That doesn't appear very likely."

Benzon related some other information that helps to explain the high numbers. "We have research data that show a 90 percent kid survival rate through their first 90 days," he said, "and that exists through the heart of South Dakota's antelope range."

In other words, recruitment appears to be no problem at all for this state's antelope resource. "We actually are trying to get on top of that recruitment," Benzon noted, "which is why we believe it is so critically important for our hunters to begin filling those second doe/kid tags with a doe."

Benzon didn't get into this -- but you whitetail hunters know what will happen if the sex ratio of South Dakota's pronghorn population gets out of whack: Numbers will keep going up, best-quality habitat to support those higher numbers will decline, and the overall health of the state's antelope will suffer.

And in case you don't believe the problem exists: Benzon talked about aerial surveys that revealed a shocking 1:1 buck-to-doe ratio in not just one hunting unit, but a couple. They lie in the northwestern part of the state, home to really big numbers of South Dakota pronghorns.

"Let's put it this way," Benzon said. "We don't get any complaints about success rates from our antelope hunters. We talked about a 28 percent rate for archery hunters, and we see 70 to 80 percent success rates for our firearms hunters on their first tags. We even had one unit last season with a 100 percent success rate on the first tag."

Why is Benzon issuing this public call for more antelope hunters, especially those willing to fill their second tag with a doe?

"Last season was excellent for us, but we still didn't sell all of our antlerless permits," he explained. "And we are coming off another very, very mild winter. We won't have any impact from winter mortality, and range conditions appear to be good for fawning."

When pheasants come to mind, hunters all over North America often think of South Dakota first. Arguably, they'd do well to start including this state in discussions of the most promising pronghorn-hunting opportunities. Sure, it's not Wyoming -- but it's really good, and the 2008 season looks to be hot again.

Like the rest of the Great Plains states, North Dakota offers unlimited archery permits. Firearms tags vary from season to season, and biologist Bruce Stillings expects fewer gun tags to be available, because his state is coming off a record season.

"We had a very good season," he said, "and we issued more gun licenses than ever before -- a total of 6,069. And even with that high a number, our success rate was roughly 80 percent. We needed to issue that many licenses because we hoped to get numbers down and more in line with our manag

ement objectives. For the most part, we succeeded."

Hence Stillings' expectation of fewer gun licenses for 2008. Throughout the Great Plains, wildlife biologists make recommendations based on recent harvest numbers and the existing population. Since North Dakota hunters enjoyed such notable success last season, the firearms licenses likely will decrease. But, as always, that'll be subject to change/ adjustment on an annual basis.

"It appears as though we had 9,000 to 10,000 pronghorns heading into the 2008 fawning season," Stillings said. "Our gun harvest last season was about 4,400 animals. So it's reasonable to presume that our total population should be somewhere in the 15,000 range heading into the 2008 hunting season."

North Dakota's pronghorns -- like those in the state's three Great Plains neighbors to the south -- wintered "wonderfully," to use Stillings' characterization. A relatively mild, dry winter has meant a lack of moisture, of course, but, he noted when we spoke, plenty of time remained for adequate rain to keep range conditions in decent condition.

Stillings also let it be known that the decision to close pronghorn hunting east of the Missouri River is, apparently, paying off, noting that antelope numbers east of the Missouri are starting to increase, although slowly -- and that's good news. Returning pronghorns to more of their traditional native range -- presuming that the habitat and forage they need are available -- is a good thing. That seems to be happening east of the Missouri here.

Stillings pointed to the extreme southwest corner of the state as home to the best pronghorn hunting prospects, although hunting opportunities exist throughout the state west of the Missouri River.

In North Dakota, Stillings said, the 2008 season frameworks would be -- as in the other three states in the region -- very similar to 2007. So don't expect any big changes in that regard.

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