Great Plains Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Great Plains Deer Outlook Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

Tagging a deer in our region isn't as tough overall as it once was, but some areas stand out prominently for the ability to produce venison. Here's a closer look at the ones where your chances of scoring are best this season.

Photo by Mark Werner

Can you feel it?

Deer season is upon us. Some Great Plains hunters already have been on stand -- in Kansas, for example, where muzzleloader hunters can take to the woods not too long after Labor Day. Others are set to hoist themselves and their archery gear into tree stands as bow seasons open throughout the region. But the most intense seasons of all -- the firearms seasons -- are still a little way off.

In this first of a two-part series, let's look at the prospects you face in filling your tags when those 2005 gun seasons arrive. We'll look at each state, with an eye toward those deer management units that hold the best potential for bringing home venison.

Among the information included will be assessments from big-game biologists in the Great Plains about the overall health of their deer herds, particularly in terms of deer density.

No Great Plains state is facing the kind of deer-population issues that some other states must deal with -- particularly in the Southeast and in some Northern states. That, however, doesn't mean that Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas are immune to the potential for overpopulation. If anything, they can be more susceptible to problems without proper management and adequate harvest. Why?

Deer researchers and biologists around the nation will tell you that when deer populations are their healthiest, resident does in a given population can become fawn factories, and without the kind of control that ethical hunting provides, populations can quickly begin going out of balance. That's why it seemed important to include some observations about deer densities in this story, which focuses on where to go if your major goal is to fill a tag. The easy answer is that you go where the most deer are, and/or where the success rate has proved to be high for hunters in recent seasons.

You'll find that information in the following four-state roundup, along with more information that should be helpful in planning your hunts.


Kansas biologist Lloyd Fox doesn't talk so much about deer density in the Sunflower State. Instead, he talks about deer vulnerability.

"We definitely have higher deer density in eastern Kansas," he said. "In that part of the state our deer herd has better escape cover and sanctuary '¦ and limited hunting opportunities."

You can fault increasing development as a reason for that. More land is off limits altogether to hunting, but it's that same land that deer are adapting to. They now live, and in growing numbers, in places hunters just don't get access to.

But there's an interesting twist to the concept in Kansas, where private landowners are seeing the value in managing their land for deer, and their deer for hunters. Deer hunting is becoming profitable for landowners.

You might call the result inadequate harvest by choice. Some folks are creating deer refuges through limiting access to their land and the deer using it. For that reason, Fox pointed to deer management units in western Kansas as those with the most promise this season for hunters who just want to fill a tag; he specifically mentioned units 1, 2, 3, 16 and 17, and suggested that Unit 7 was a possibility.

"Our harvest last season was 78,000," he said, "which is up slightly from 2003, when it was 71,000 to 72,000."

The regular gun season in Kansas will run from Nov. 20 to Dec. 11 this year. The only change in management units, Fox noted, involves a boundary change between units 10 and 19 in Leavenworth County.

Kansas has some notable changes upcoming for the 2005 firearms season, one being that bowhunters will have to wear the same orange clothing required for gun hunters.

Also new this year is the requirement that hunters who want to buy an antlerless-only permit or game tag must also hold a permit for taking an antlered deer.

Kansas issues tags and permits for antlerless white-tailed deer. Here's the difference: A permit can be used on Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks-managed public wildlife areas, Walk-In Hunting Areas, or any private property for which the hunter has obtained permission to hunt. Tags may be used only on private land with the landowner's permission, and on Walk-In Hunting Areas. They may not be used on KDWP-managed wildlife areas.

Hunters can buy up to four Whitetail Antlerless Game Tags (not permits). Up to four tags per hunter can be used in DMUs 7, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16 and 19. Only one tag per hunter can be used in DMUs 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11 and 14. Game tags are not valid in DMUs 1, 2, 17 and 18.

Also: There will be an extended season from Jan. 1-8 only in DMUs 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 19; only antlerless white-tailed deer can be taken then. Unfilled deer permits that are valid in units open for the extended season can be used, as well as game tags -- but only to harvest antlerless deer. Any equipment legal for use during a firearms season can be used during the extended season; note that blaze orange clothing is required.

Now, we come to Unit 19 -- a legitimate "urban" DMU that basically includes the Kansas City-to-Topeka corridor. In addition to all the regular seasons that will be open statewide, Unit 19's pre-rut firearms season will be open from Oct. 15-23. There will also be an antlerless-only archery season in this unit Jan. 9-31.


Before we get into the harvest from last season and success rates, we should mention that Nebraska offers a tag worth taking note of. "We have a statewide youth deer permit, which allows youth ages 12 to 15 to hunt statewide for any deer, anywhere," said biologist Kit Hams. "They are unlimited, and available to resident and non-resident youth."

So in a state where, on average, half of the bucks taken annually are at least 2 years old, young hunters in Nebraska are going to get a chance not only to fill their tag, but also, possibly, to do so by taking a nice buck.

Throw in the fact that there is a 100-day archery season, a month-long blackpowder season and the traditional firearms season (which this year runs Nov. 12-20), and the bottom line is that Nebraska has to be considered a very exciting destination for young hunters.

While noting that any kind of rankings list is based on a number of factors (different species, success rates, overall population in a given area, etc.), Hams offered the following roundup of the best management units in the state heading into 2005.

  • Sandhills Unit: 59 percent success. Managed as a trophy unit, this area has the state's oldest deer population, 75 percent of which are at least 2 years old.

  • Blue Southeast: 56 percent success rate. No permits are sold to non-residents in this unit, which has the state's highest deer density. Even so, the age structure is good, with 50 percent at least 2 years old.

  • Pine Ridge: 77 percent success. Hams says that this, the state's highest success rate, is due in part to the availability of bonus antlerless tags. This unit also has the most public land available in any single Nebraska management unit -- 200,000 acres.

  • Frenchman Unit: This unit has the state's highest population of mule deer, and a hunter success rate of 56 percent. Of deer taken here, 65 percent are 2 years old or older.

    As for available permits, Nebraska, like many other states around the country, provides for unlimited archery and muzzleloader tags. But for the traditional firearms season this year, there will be 53,100 firearms permits and 21,550 Season-Choice Antlerless permits.

    "2005 should see an excellent season," Hams said. "Our harvest the past eight years has ranged from 52,000 to 60,000 -- and they represent the highest harvest years on record. Our 2004 harvest was 56,311."

    This season, Hams added, should be similar; he expects roughly half of the bucks taken again to be at least 2 years old.

    Hams called Nebraska's mule deer population "stable" and noted that the 2004 mule deer buck harvest was 6,800. "Deer density follows precipitation and river corridors. Southeast Nebraska has the highest precipitation and deer density of all deer management units. The Missouri and Platte River corridors have the highest deer densities, followed by wooded areas in southeast Nebraska and the Pine Ridge in northwest Nebraska."

    No significant changes are anticipated for any of the state's 18 major deer management units, Hams reported. Six days will be added to the January antlerless season, however. And Nebraska has increased the percentage of either-sex permits in seven DMUs. There also will be 2,300 additional Season-Choice Antlerless permits.


    South Dakota Biologist Ted Benzon used one sentence to say plenty as the firearms deer season approaches: "License numbers will increase again for the 2005 season." That, he added, is in the wake of the state's record 2004 harvest.

    Heading into this season, he said, South Dakota is home to approximately 210,000 whitetails and 75,000 mule deer. These are not the numbers you'll see in other states, but it definitely suggests a healthy population.

    And that will mean healthy permit numbers. Some examples (note that all state permits are available only by lottery drawing):

    In the Black Hills Region, the state has 5,000 resident and 400 non-resident buck tags, and 2,200 resident and 176 non-resident doe tags.

    In the West River region, there are 4,495 one-tag and 23,085 two-tag licenses for residents, and 361 one-tag and 1,848 two-tag licenses for non-residents. The one-tag licenses are for any deer; the two-tag permits include one for any deer and one for any antlerless deer.

    The Black Hills season will run Nov. 1-30. At press time, the dates for the West River and East River regions were: West River, Oct. 1-9, Nov. 17 to Dec. 4, and Jan. 1-8; East River, Nov. 19 to Dec. 11 and Jan. 1-8.

    Benzon noted that last year's record harvest was directly attributable to an "increase in licenses to bring population numbers down." He also noted that 48 percent of the average buck harvest was deer that were at least 2 years old.

    That number suggests that hunters are getting a chance to fill their tags with bucks better than yearlings. History suggests that continuing to increase harvest -- particularly antlerless harvest -- will help maintain good numbers of bucks that are reaching, or at least approaching, more mature stature when hunters get a chance at them.

    Last season, Benzon said, the areas with the highest hunter success rates were the Black Hills, Harding County, Fall River, Gregory and Brown County.


    North Dakota deer have a huge swath of acreage that -- based on what happened a year ago -- looks good for hunter success rates this season. Biologist William F. Jensen says that the management units with the highest hunter success from 2004 included 3B3 (87 percent), 2K2 (88 percent), 2F1 (90 percent), 2C (80 percent) and 4F (84 percent).

    Now look at the map of the state's deer management units. Huge Unit 2K2 sits just northeast of dead center. Unit 2C, in the northeast corner of the state, is fairly large as well. Unit 4F, in the southwestern corner, is tiny. Throw in Unit 3B3, just west of center-state, and Unit 2F1, in east-central North Dakota, and you can see that a significant amount of land is available to hunters this season that will offer more than 80 percent of those hunters a great chance at filling a tag.

    Does deer density have something to do with that? It does. And Jensen notes an emphasis on antlerless harvest in some areas for 2005. "We are focusing on increased antlerless licenses south and west of the Missouri River," he said, "and in the northeastern quarter of the state."

    The Following are the top deer management units per state for 2004, based on permit numbers and hunter success in those untis
    North Dakota
    UnitPercent Success
    South Dakota
    UnitPercent Success
    Fall River County70%
    Gregory County70%
    Brown County65%
    Harding County65%
    Black Hills60%
    UnitPercent Success
    Pine Ridge77%
    Blue Southeast56%
    UnitPercent Success
    Unit 164.3%
    Unit 261.0%
    Unit 360.9%
    Unit 1659.9%
    Unit 1756.2%

    Those areas coincide with some of the highest hunter success rates in the state from last season, which suggests that hunters do well because deer numbers, especially antlerless deer numbers, are relatively high there.

    "Deer densities are at or near our management goals in much of the state," Jensen added. "But we are above those goals in a band running from the southwest to the northeast corners of the state."

    Interesting. Take a ruler, and place it along a line running diagonally across the North Dakota map from the southwest to the northeast. It runs through four of the five units Jensen singled out as having the highest hunter success rates last season. The exception: Unit 2F1 -- but it borders the massive Unit 2K2 on the east.

    So the numbers add up: Hunters are seeing more deer in the units where biologists are looking to increase antlerless harvest. You'll see it again this season, and you likely should do your hunting in or near those units if your goal simply is bringing home venison for the freezer.

    While allowing that last season was good, Jensen noted that standing crops in some units reduced hunter success -- another element that hunters in all four Great Plains states should consider as they plan their hunts. If you have a place in mind, do some homework on what the farmers were able to get done in their fields. With crops still in the field, deer sanctuary acreage grows significantly, making it tougher to determine the best stand sites.

    North Dakota's regular deer gun season will run Nov. 4-20. Jensen said that the state has 145,600 permits available. He noted one regulation change in North Dakota this season: Baiting will no longer be permitted in any of the state's wildlife management areas.


    For more information on the deer seasons in the Great Plains, contact the regional office of your state's game department, or get in touch with the proper headquarters if you're planning an out-of-state hunt.

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