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Deer Problems Continue

February 17, 2012  

Mule deer in western South and North Dakota continue to be plagued by several problems, most notably the severe winters prior to the current season. As a result, available hunting permits will continue to decrease.

White-tailed deer in western North Dakota also had problems with a severe epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) outbreak last fall as well, the worst in 20 years. The outbreak was even more severe in areas of eastern Montana, where officials have said it will take years to recover. Estimates for dead deer in Montana were in the thousands. The disease last fall even spread to points in Wyoming and Kansas.

“The biggest factor on adult (mule deer) has been the severe winters,” said ND Game and Fish big game biologist, Bruce Stillings of Dickinson. Of the previous three hard winters, he added, “They produced the three lowest years of fawn reproduction since the 1950s.”

As a result of record low production, there’s consideration of eliminating the mule deer doe season in North Dakota next fall, along with a continuing decline in buck tags.

“We knew of these problems last year already, but didn’t expect to have the lowest reproduction of mule deer on record (last summer),” Stillings said.

Stillings said any decision on further reductions in mule deer hunting permits will be made by spring, after the aerial surveys are taken in early April. North Dakota has never had a season where doe-hunting was cancelled, and if it happens next fall, may well serve as a signal of continuing problems.

“Our focus in on the Badlands,” he said. “We’ll take a look after the surveys and we may see reduced antlered mule deer licenses as well. We’ll make a decision after the April survey.”

Stillings said that while the current mild winter, at least up to mid-January, will help tremendously, the damage has been done. Even with mild winters and good habitat, it will take some time for Badlands deer numbers to recover.

In addition to adverse winter problems for mulies, other factors are proving detrimental, like mountain lion and coyote predation, as their numbers increase.

“Certainly they (predators) are playing a role in the problems, but we don’t know the extent of it right now,” Stillings said. “It’s a concern, but it’s not one of the more important factors. The driving force is winter.”

Deer/vehicle collisions are also up with increased traffic because of the Bakken oil boom, but Stillings reiterated that this factor, also, hasn’t been major.

“It remains weather and habitat,” he said of mule deer problems. “Habitat is number one. The changing of the landscape if a major concern.”

A further problem could develop in North Dakota, in that nonresident archery hunters are allowed 15 percent of the previous year’s “any deer” licenses. It’s possible, if reductions for residents are deep enough next fall, there may be more nonresident hunters than residents.

Problems with declining mule deer in South Dakota are also evident, but primarily in the extreme northwest in Harding and Perkins counties. Those two areas also have experienced three consecutive disastrous winters.

John Kanta, big game biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department’s Rapid City office, said that while production numbers are okay over the general north and western part of South Dakota, those two north-western most counties are of concern.

“We’ve made considerable cuts in the numbers of mule deer tags recently, especially in Harding and Perkins counties,” he said.

Decisions on further cuts will be made after data is reviewed on harvest success last year, along with field observations from sportsmen, landowners and local staff. The information, along with a recommendation for the coming year will be presented to the Game, Fish and Parks Commission in early May. They will ultimately make a decision on the status of mule deer hunting permits for next fall in South Dakota.

Meanwhile, whitetails also suffered in southwest North Dakota last fall, experiencing one of the most severe outbreaks of EHD in recent decades. As a result, available hunting permits may also be reduced next fall for that species.

“The EHD outbreak will have an impact on this year’s reproduction,” Stillings said. “If we get some snow, we’ll do our late winter surveys and then we’ll know more. Last year’s outbreak was more severe and more widespread than normal.”

The department received 137 confirmed reports of EHD-killed deer, but that doesn’t necessary cover the scope of the problem, Stillings added.

Western North Dakota hunters will know where they stand for next fall’s season by late April. •

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