S.D. mule-deer numbers haven’t really returned

Capitol News Bureau
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FORT PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — State big-game biologists are considering ways to rebuild South Dakota’s population of mule deer.

“If it were easy,” Tom Kirschenmann, director for the state Wildlife Division, told South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks commissioners last week, “we’d have this figured out a long, long time ago.”

During the 2019 seasons, hunters in South Dakota reported taking about 44,100 white-tails and about 6,600 mule deer, including about 5,200 bucks. It marked the sixth year in a recent string where mule-deer harvests were down.

During the late 1990s and 2000s, the opposite was true. South Dakota hunters were encouraged to kill more deer, including mulies, as populations exceeded the tolerance levels of many landowners.

Among the steps the state commission approved were more licenses, cheaper licenses, more two- and three-tag licenses, changes to archery and muzzleloader and youth seasons, selling left-over licenses across the counter rather than only through random drawings, offering landowner licenses, letting hunters hold up to five deer licenses and adding a season for mentored hunters.

The numbers began to turn about 10 years ago. Populations dropped amid four severe winters, a 2012 summer drought, increasing losses of habitat, and more predators including Black Hills mountain lions.

The commission, acting on recommendations of GFP biologists, responded by reducing licenses, removing antlerless options and modifying harvest goals.

The staff still doesn’t offer numbers for where they want the population of mule deer. Instead, biologists use indicators such as aerial surveys and ground reports from hunters and landowners. Said Andy Lindbloom, a senior big-game biologist, “We may not be where we want to be yet, but we are close to that point.”

Charles Spring, a commissioner who ranches near Union Center, said he’s running into fewer herds in his area than in the past. Hunters and ranchers have told him the numbers are down considerably, including at public walk-in areas where, he said, there are few or none to be found. “It takes a long, long time to ever get them back,” Spring said.

Another commissioner, Travis Bies, who ranches in the Fairburn area on the eastern side of the Black Hills, said the decision to take more does had made mule deer overall harder to find in public areas. “They’re  not there anymore,” Bies said. He said a related reason is that his area is relatively close for hunters from Rapid City. “They’re disappearing quick,” Bies said about mulies.

During the past decade the commission changed to a two-year year approach for setting big-game seasons. The next round for mule deer comes in January and March of 2021.

Commissioner Doug Sharp, a Watertown vehicle dealer, suggested GFP should generate numerical goals for mule deer similar to what the department does for white-tails. Lindbloom showed a map. “We have objective directions. They’re not numbers,” Lindbloom said.

Sharp said his impression was that big-game management would mean having actual population objectives. “It seems to me that would be a better approach. I’m not a biologist,” Sharp said. He added, “I don’t know that we should be dealing in such a subjective manner.”

“I can’t disagree. We could do a better job,” Lindbloom replied. But given the funding available, that wasn’t really possible, Lindbloom added. He said there are about 60,000 mule deer across South Dakota right now. One of the newer ideas for better estimates is using trail cameras in rough terrain where aerial surveys from fixed-wing aircraft have been difficult, he said.

Lindbloom said he’d like to have numbers, too. “Hopefully, we can get there in the future,” he said.

The 2019-harvest surveys were done somewhat differently than in previous years, and that might have affected the harvest estimates that dipped, Lindbloom said.

Commissioner Robert Whitmyre, who farms near Webster, said lower harvests of does hadn’t led to population growth. He wondered about other mortality reasons.

Answered Lindbloom, “We’re running about average.” He said South Dakota fit where other western states were. “We don’t see any reason for alarm there,” Lindbloom said. He added, “When you get deer densities down to such a low rate, it takes a while to build them up.” He agreed the populations haven’t come back across the state to the level that GFP biologists want.

Commissioner Spring asked about predators. Lindbloom said mountain lions aren’t a factor on mule deer across the entire state, but there are concerns in the Black Hills, where there are fewer mule deer than sportsmen had seen some seasons. “Without a doubt mule deer are preyed upon by mountain lions as well,” Lindbloom said.

GFP Secretary Kelly Hepler said he’s seen fewer mule deer in Harding County where he hunts. Hepler said hunters responded to the commission and staff in the late 1990s and 2000s and overharvested. “But during the time, I get it,” Hepler said. “Once you put them (the population) down like that, it’s really, really hard to bring ‘em back” He added, “We need to learn from that.”

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