Whitetail Hunting photo

Although the threat of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) ended with the first hard freeze here on the Plains, its effects are still being felt by deer hunters, and will be for several seasons to come. It’s hard to say just how many deer died from this year’s outbreaks, but I can promise you the official reports are extremely low. For every dead deer reported by hunters and landowners, it’s hard to know just how many carcasses went undiscovered.

What I can tell you is anecdotal evidence gathered from talking to hunters across the region points to a greatly reduced deer herd on the Plains, especially in Nebraska and South Dakota. Without exception, every hunter I talked to or heard from via e-mail and text messages reported seeing significantly fewer deer than in previous years. And since the pheasant opener in late October, I’ve heard from several bird hunters here who found dead deer while they were afield, adding to the already high numbers of reported EHD kills.

Of course, hunters in Nebraska had been enjoying some banner years lately, with herd numbers at record levels, so maybe we’re a bit spoiled here. But it’s no secret the Game and Parks Commission in that state has been doing everything it can to balance the desires of hunters for more opportunity (and the dollars that generates) with the complaints from farmers clamoring for depredation tags. Up until now that has meant bonus tags, late antlerless seasons, and other methods to increase the deer harvest. Early indications coming out of recent informational town-hall meetings is that some of those opportunities may go away in 2013.

Considering that drought exacerbates the spread of EHD by concentrating deer herds around water sources, the worst may not be over. Much of the Great Plains is still experiencing drought conditions, and it’s going to take some heavy snowfall and an extremely wet spring to replenish the area’s lakes, rivers, ponds and reservoirs. Another EHD outbreak next summer would likely be devastating to deer herds on the Plains, although there is evidence that surviving deer exposed to EHD develop antibodies that may protect them from the virus in coming years.

Still, the 2012 season wasn’t all bad. In addition to the few photos of EHD-killed bucks like the one above, my inbox was full of pictures of happy hunters with their hands wrapped around some impressive antlers. And, despite the reduced deer numbers, the rut went off like a bomb in some areas, and with more of a slow burn in others – just like usual. Sure, we may have to get used to a new normal after more than a decade of inflated deer populations, but deep down, deer hunters are forever optimists, and despite the gloom and doom of 2012, we’ll all still be raring to get in the field come next fall.

We’ll see you then.