The Great Plains' 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Our Top Hunting Areas

In our states, tagging a deer (or two) seems to get easier every year, but it's still the case that some spots produce more venison than do others. Here's a close-up look at the fall's most promising deer-hunting locales. (October 2008)

Deer biologists in all four Great Plains states want to see more does in the annual harvest, so they're issuing more permits this fall -- good news for hunters looking for extra venison.
Photo by Mike Blair.

As the 2008 deer season unfolds across the Great Plains, familiar themes dominate. Biologists in the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas are talking about most of the same things that they've highlighted in recent seasons: harvests at or near record highs and winters for the most part mild, so that deer came through in good shape.

In certain areas throughout the region, populations are above management goals set by state biologists, so game departments are asking hunters to take more antlerless deer in these locations. And while seasons are with few exceptions virtually the same as they've been in recent years, one significant change looming on the horizon could influence the course of Great Plains deer hunting more than just about anything else.

First, we'll look at the top hunting areas in each state, and then talk about those familiar themes -- and how the conversation could change in big ways.

"Last year was the same, pretty much, as the past four or five years," said Lloyd Fox, of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "We had a little bit higher harvest, but nothing too significant."

As you look at the units Fox provided as having high hunter success rates, he offered a caveat as the 2008 season approaches. "Management unit nos. 1, 2, 17 and 18 traditionally have good success rates, but these are very low-deer-density areas. Hunters in these units may have to do some work to find deer."

He noted that hunters around the Sunflower State are being more diligent -- and resorting to more high tech -- in the quest for deer. And those labors are offering new insights into Kansas' whitetail population. "We are starting to get reports of deer in poor physical condition," he explained. "We're working some cases in that regard, and hunters are finding those deer through the use of trail cameras during pre-season scouting. Trail cameras are more popular than ever, and they are providing landowners, hunters and us biologists with more detailed observation data than ever.

"At this point it's difficult to say whether these cases reflect a potential problem, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Anytime you are generating more data than ever, you're going to see more elements of the overall population than ever."

One part of the Kansas deer world that Fox enthusiastically discussed was the land in management units nos. 5, 13 and 15, which include the Arkansas River drainage. "Our deer are doing very well along the Arkansas River," he said. "Unit 13 not only has high hunter success rates, but it also has a high deer population. Unit 5 and Unit 7 are outstanding, and the only reason Unit 15 is not higher in success is because there are so many hunters there."

Kansas' season framework has changed for 2008. Three different seasons have already opened by the time October arrives, and one of them is already over -- the new youth/ disabled hunter firearms season, which ran from Sept. 13-21. The muzzleloader season, which had been Kansas' first for deer for some time, opened Sept. 22 and will close Oct. 5. Archery season opened Sept. 22 and runs through Dec. 31, as usual.

"Archery season is concurrent with our muzzleloader and modern firearms seasons," Fox noted, "so bowhunters must wear blaze orange if they hunt during those seasons." Regular firearms season is Dec. 3-14 this year, and extra antlerless hunting will run Jan. 1-4, 2009, with an extra time in the northern parts of units nos. 7 and 8 in north-central Kansas. Check the state's Web site for the exact dates.

"We expected a record harvest in 2007, and we got it," said Kit Hams of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. A total harvest exceeding 69,000 animals was up considerably from the previous high of 65,000.

"Even with those numbers, our success actually was down a little because the weather was unseasonably warm," he said, adding that winter mortality "is never a problem" in the Cornhusker State and asserting that outbreaks of epizoÖtic hemorrhagic disease ("blue tongue") generally account for any significant hits to the state's deer population.

Major EHD outbreaks are generally associated with arid, high-temperature conditions that force deer to congregate in the limited number of places at which water is in such cases available, and there the biting insects that transmit the disease can do their dirty work. "In addition to the hot, dry conditions, you also need a deer herd with its resistance lowered due to stress, and we just haven't seen that," Hams said. "It's been four years since we had a noticeable outbreak and we lost some deer in the northern Panhandle."

Hams fingered the usual suspects as top management units for hunters this season: Sandhills, Platte, Pine Ridge, Frenchman and Loup West. As is the case in the rest of the regions, deer populations are healthy -- healthy enough, in fact, that upwards of 85,000 bonus antlerless tags have been added to 2008 permits.

"Every archery, muzzleloader, youth and landowner permit we issue will have bonus antlerless tags," Hams said, noting that the $55 non-resident antlerless tags provide the chance to harvest two deer. "I want to encourage people to use the bonus tags. Our message to hunters and landowners is consistent: You need to manage the deer in your area. And when hunters and landowners work together toward that goal, the results can be good."

Hams encouraged checking the state's Web site for permit availability even this late into the fall, pointing out that November firearms permits were available last Nov. 1. Archery, muzzleloader and youth permits are sold over the counter.

Ted Benzon of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks is looking ahead to "another great deer season" in 2008 -- and, as usual, calling for hunters to attach their bonus tags to antlerless deer.

"We are asking hunters to use bonus tags to shoot does and make some jerky," he said the biologist, noting that in the West River reg

ion, double permits include one any-deer tag and one antlerless tag. Success rates are around 70 percent for the first tag and 30 percent for the second, but not because it's tougher to fill an antlerless tag. Hunters simply aren't taking that second deer.

Doing so will make what has turned into a dynamically healthy deer population even better. "Of course, we realize that a big factor for us this season definitely could be the cost of gasoline and diesel," Benzon said. "Counties in the West River just don't have the population that we see in the East River region, and the cost of traveling west could hurt our success rate this season."

Once again, he mentioned Brown, Edmunds, Harding, Perkins and Spink as among the state's best counties for filling tags. "We have seen overall success rates slowly drop the past two to three years, but that's at least a little misleading," he said. "We have been issuing more licenses -- more overall tags -- so that is going to contribute to slightly lower success rates."

South Dakota's herd could be one of the most balanced anywhere in terms of sex ratios. Despite all the unused doe tags, hunters have done a good job of getting deer numbers down. The goal now: Keep them down, because of what happens in the field when buck-to-doe ratios approach 1:1. "We are getting yearling does bred, and they're dropping one fawn. Our older does pretty much are all producing twins, and many of them are surviving the critical early days of their lives," Benzon said.

In the East River region, data show a 95 percent fawn survival rate. Benzon reported a ratio of 140 fawns per 100 does in the region -- post-mortality! "We still have a lot of deer, and hunters can enjoy a great chance to fill tags again this season," he said.

Biologist Bill Jensen of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department called last year's deer harvest "good," and said the state's population came through what he called an "open winter" in fine shape.

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Following are the top deer management units per state for 2007, based on permit numbers and hunter success in those units.
North Dakota2K2 95%
North Dakota3F1 91%
North Dakota2C86%
North Dakota4F 85%
North Dakota2D 67%
South DakotaEdmunds Co. 56%
South DakotaHarding Co. 54%
South DakotaBrown Co. 52%
South DakotaSpink Co. 49%
South DakotaPerkins Co. 46%
NebraskaSandhills 68%
NebraskaPine Ridge 67%
NebraskaPlatte 66%
Nebraska Frenchman65%
NebraskaLoup West65%
KansasUnit 2 63%
KansasUnit 5 60%
KansasUnit 1758%
KansasUnit 7 57%
KansasUnit 13 56%

Jensen made note of two areas of the state -- the northeast and the southwest -- whose deer numbers continue to run higher than the level prescribed in management goals. In the former, levels of concern led the state to implement a special September antlerless season. "Other states have done this, and they've been able to reduce populations while giving hunters another opportunity to be in the field," Jensen said. "We don't foresee doing this every year, but we have been very aggressive in trying to keep on top of our deer population."

As proof, Jensen pointed to permit numbers, which have been adjusted for 2008 to shift

hunting pressure to areas needing attention as a result of high deer numbers. "Our overall permits are only very slightly higher than last season," he said, "but we did see the need to shift hunting pressure by adjusting numbers in certain units."

You'll see very high success rates in North Dakota, and the management units with the highest numbers appear to be pretty consistent. If you haven't hunted North Dakota and want to give it a try, remember that the northeast and southwest areas of the state are going to hold the most promise.

Jensen got specific: "We see really high success rates south and west of the Missouri River. And, as I said, the northeast still has a lot of deer."

When talking about current habitat conditions in his state, North Dakota's Jensen mentioned something in passing that set off alarms here.

"Remember, I'm in North Dakota, the least forested state in the nation," he began. "What with the Farm Bill and the price of commodities being what they are, we are seeing a lot of CRP acreage coming out as those contracts expire. Landowners are putting that acreage back into production, and that is going to dramatically affect deer habitat here. It's going to make deer a lot more visible."

That may be the least of the deer's worries. Conservation Reserve Program acreage has provided significant cover to deer throughout the Great Plains states. Losing that cover as landowners return CRP acres to production will change the deer landscape -- literally and figuratively.

Gauging the relative importance of losing the two main cover types -- fawning and escape -- is difficult. The former is most likely the worse, given fawns' vulnerability to predation during the first few weeks of life. Biologists around the country have started to see that predators' influence on fawn survival is greater than once was thought. Take away literally thousands of acres of fawning cover, and coyotes, for example, will become even more effective hunters.

"Knowing that we're going to lose significant CRP land is why we're trying to really get on top of our deer numbers in the northeast and the southwest, where they are the very highest," Jensen said.

South Dakota's Benzon offered a sobering assessment of the extent of CRP losses based on direct observation. "Recently I spent about three weeks in the northeastern corner of the state," he said. "During that time, I was never out of sight of people burning longstanding CRP fields to turn them back into production. It really was amazing to see."

According to Benzon, deer hunters' success rates are going to go up substantially for the first couple of years after CRP-acreage loss -- "and that's not necessarily a good thing over the long term. It will take a year or two for overall deer numbers to drop in areas that lose significant CRP acreage, but it is going to happen."

Hams was taking a wait-and-see attitude in Nebraska. "We are going to have to evaluate the impact on a case-by-case basis," he said, "but CRP loss definitely will see us lose some public hunting areas because of the loss of habitat."

Fox's perspective on CRP loss in Kansas? Again, wait and see. "We certainly have to be concerned about CRP loss, but we just don't know where it's going," he said. "In many ways, it's the great mystery that will affect our deer, because agreements are ending soon, and we expect to see a reduction in CRP. It's been an outstanding program because of the fawning and escape cover it's provided. When CRP land goes back into production, it's going to be detrimental to the deer; I just don't know how much at this point."

Fox suggested that Kansas is likely to experience its highest losses of CRP acreage in the eastern half of the state, which historically gets higher annual rainfall and whose CRP enrollments are as a result more easily restored to production.

The biologists agree: CRP loss is inevitable, and will affect the region's deer -- although estimating the extent of the effect would be tough.

As for this season, hunters should know that all four states' deer herds are in great shape, and that those management units producing high hunter success rates in recent seasons should do so again in 2008.

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