As hunters take to the fields and the forests this fall, many may wonder whether the game they seek is more abundant than usual, or if there is a shortage of the prey they pursue.
It's a natural thought process.
But South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks senior big game biologist Andy Lindbloom has comforting news for hunters, in that most of the big-game herds in the state are growing.
Not all are growing at the rate that GFP would like, but Lindbloom said hunter success has been on the rise, and added that a lot of that has to do with animal density.
The bottom line is that when the fall hunting seasons begin, most hunters should have a solid chance at finding success.
The question on many people's minds, however, is how is the drought that hit western South Dakota this summer is going to affect the health of herds going forward. Lindbloom said the jury is still out about how the drought impacts will play out in future years.
“Drought can definitely impact any environment, it’s a matter of how severe the drought is. It impacts forage growth on the landscape,” he said. “That’s tough to quantify, whether or not we’re that severe, that’s debatable. we haven’t been able to document that, but it’s something we’re monitoring.”
Here, then, is a closer look at the status of different big game herds in South Dakota as the 2017 fall hunt arrives.
The story is positive for the whitetail deer population, and therefore for hunters. Numbers are on the rise, but GFP still wants to increase the herd on the both the prairie and in the Black Hills.
On the prairie, the number of deer is estimated at 445,000, which is up from 375,000 last year. In the Hills, that number has increased from 51,000 a year ago to 58,000.
“It’s still heading in the right direction, for the most part in a lot of our units we’re in a rebuilding phase, keeping licenses low so we can increase the population,” Lindbloom said. "Last year we had some hard winters so we saw some winter mortality, we also had some losses due to hemorrhagic disease."
He added: “Things like that are hard to control but will affect population numbers and are something to keep in mind when setting license numbers.”
In most areas of western South Dakota, GFP would like to slightly increase the population of whitetail deer. There are some areas, like the western parts of Harding and Butte counties, where it would like to see a slight decrease in the population.
In areas that run due west of the Missouri River, like Corson, Jones, Stanley, Todd, Mellette and Lyman counties, GFP would like to substantially increase the whitetail population.
“The whitetail growth slowed down last year but we anticipate that it’ll come back to normal rates, we’re still below objectives in most areas,” Lindbloom said of the population.
The mule deer population is also growing, but at a slower rate than the whitetail population. This year, an estimated 15,000 mule deer reside on the prairie, while there are 4,300 estimated in the Hills, numbers Lindbloom said are very similar to last year.
“For the most part we don’t see the recruitment, the hard winter can impact mule deer as well,” Lindbloom said. “Between those two factors we don’t see the growth rates.”
The recruitment rate is the rate in which fawns will reproduce, which Lindbloom said is usually at 1 year for whitetail deer, and later in life for mule deer.
“The potential is there for the mule deer herd to grow strong, but for whatever reason, for the most part, we don’t see those growth rates with mule deer like we do for whitetail,” he said. “One of the underlying factors is recruitment rate. For whitetails, you can get a fairly percentage of the fawns breed their first year, and you don’t see that very often with mule deer. That’s a pretty big addition to a population, you can have fawns having fawns the next year.”
For both whitetail deer and mule deer, the reproductive rate across the state was down from last year. Per 100 whitetail does, 83 successfully reproduced, while only 65 per 100 mule deer reproduced. Both those numbers were down from last year.
“Our deer herd did not grow as fast we wanted it to in most areas last year,” he said. “There isn’t a good reason, but the lower reproductive rates were consistent.”
Hunter success was at a 10-year high last year, according to Lindbloom, with 70 percent of pronghorn antelope hunters reporting a successful hunt. The season prior, only 64 percent took an animal.
“Last year we had a good harvest, and we saw that success increased,” Lindbloom said. “When we did our aerial survey, we were about 15 percent higher and we estimate about a 15 percent growth rate this year.”
The total herd has grown as well, from about 40,000 last year to 48,000 this year.
Still, GFP would like to see those numbers rise. In 16 of the 24 hunting units, GFP said it would like to “substantially increase” population numbers. Only in units 15A (western Butte County) and 49B (southern Meade/western Pennington counties) was the population objectives classified as “maintain current.”
Last year, a hard winter hit the northern counties, and Lindbloom said that remains a concern for all species. He said, however, that GFP hasn’t seen it directly impact the pronghorn numbers.
“The population is growing slowly,” Lindbloom said. “We’re still below objectives in most areas, so we’ll continue to let it grow.”
The elk population is a generally different story, as the state feels like it has stabilized the herd and is happy with where it is.
In the Hills, the population is slightly above where the state's goals. While the preferred herd size is 6,800, the current population is now estimated at 7,200. The herd in Custer State Park is estimated at 416 elk.
“We’re right at objective stated in management plans, and our goal is to stabilize that,” he said.
That stabilization probably won’t involve much change in the number of licenses available.
“The bottom line is that demand [by elk hunters] is much bigger than supply will ever be,” Lindbloom said. “It’s a great resource and great opportunity, but there’s a lot more demand than supply.”
Lindbloom said that last year, of the 12,692 applicants for an elk license, 1,745 licenses were given out.