BELLE FOURCHE | An unseasonably hard winter so far this year has hit wildlife hard in western South Dakota, and along with the animals, farmers and ranchers are paying the price.
Butte County Sheriff Fred Lamphere said hundreds of deer, mostly whitetail, have targeted farm and ranch livestock feed storage because snow has covered much of their natural food sources.
“In the Belle Fourche River Valley and Arpan area, it’s phenomenal the damage,” he said.
Informal reports from northeast Wyoming and southeast Montana ranchers reflect similar concerns. South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks officials are working with farmers and ranchers to protect their food stores.
At the end of last week, more than 200 deer had been taken in what GF&P calls "depredation hunts" to relieve pressure on landowners.
That doesn’t count deer fatality rates more directly related to weather, the cold, the snow and wind, snow-covered habitat and potential natural forage.
Reports that the weather problems for landowners and wildlife may be even worse than the 1996-97 winter could bring additional resources, officials say. The late 1990s winter brought a re-evaluation of state perspectives on wildlife management and GF&P with landowners.
That continued through the last difficult winter, 2010-11, when about $1.2 million was reported spent on deer depredation under policies set following blizzards in the late 1990s.
More recently, Belle Fourche GF&P Conservation Officer Bill Eastman worked to capture flocks of wild turkeys and relocate them elsewhere.
Eastman said the challenge is to protect landowners and domestic livestock, while best managing the wildlife resource.
It’s a good solution for wild turkeys recently moved from western Butte County to low turkey population areas managed by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Game, GF&P and the Department of Environment & Natural Resources.
As many as 300 wild turkeys can congregate on a given farm or ranch. They move in large flocks that not only seek stored livestock feed, but also roost in trees above equipment and take over a farm or ranch headquarters.
Deer are another problem. The seriousness of the problem depends on the individual landowner and overall conditions on the property.
Eastman said last Friday that the situation brought depredation pool hunts. Volunteer hunters in the “pool” agree to various conditions, including hunting in isolated areas with snow-clogged trails, to help landowners and the department.
“It’s currently so fluid that I do not have an exact number of deer harvested through the organized pool hunts for sure, but I would bet hunters have harvested over 200 antlerless whitetail deer on over 20 landowner properties primarily in southeast Butte County and just into Meade County,” he said.
Eastman added, “We will still be putting more hunts together. We are also using GF&P hay and corn in strategic areas to help deer survive the harsh winter and draw them away from landowner complaints.”
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It’s a degree of partnership with landowners who normally are happy to have wildlife of all kinds sharing resources on their property if they don’t create problems for themselves or their livestock.
“In an effort to assist landowners that are receiving damage to stored livestock feed, hay, corn piles, silage pile, etc., we can provide temporary fencing to protect said supply, primarily eight-foot tall snow fencing,” Eastman said.
He added that “short stopping” efforts that offer feed for wildlife between winter habitat and livestock feed is limited to landowner properties that offer free deer hunting access throughout the deer season.
Sheriff Lamphere, who regularly crosses agricultural areas in Butte County, said he believes the animal problem is worse than even during the devastating winter of 1996-97.
Following that winter, then-GF&P Secretary John Cooper told the Legislature, “The department spent approximately $940,000 in 1996 to alleviate some of the depredation problems experienced by landowners.”
The sheriff said that snow this year has covered prairie that had open spaces even during the blizzards of the late 1990s.
“There are no bare spots,” he said.
That means there’s little area for deer to forage.
In the irrigated areas of Butte County, he said, there are probably 15 times more center pivot irrigation systems.
Those require clear, flat land to irrigate for crops.
That also means less protection for deer, especially whitetail. That leaves drainage ditches and haystacks, he said.
The wider open areas also have less to slow blowing snow onto roadways in the county, he said.
Antelope are usually less affected than whitetail or even mule deer, he said, “But this year they’re bunching up.”
He said he hoped last week’s break in the weather would help.
But forecasts for the week in Butte County were for generally colder temperatures, wind and up to 60 percent chances of snow in amounts of two to six inches.