How the Drought Will Affect Deer

If you rewind the clock to a year ago this week, you'll see 2011's initial Great Plains Rut Report is titled "Hunting the Apocalypse," a somewhat tongue-in-cheek nod to how both drought conditions and epic floods would affect the area's deer hunters. Well, I hate to sound like a broken record, but Great Plains hunters are facing another dual dose of doom in the coming season.

Last year's localized dry conditions have expanded into a full-blown drought ranging from the Rockies east to nearly Appalachia. Hunters hoping for a break from the hot, dry conditions were knocked back to reality a few weeks ago when the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center released its Seasonal Drought Outlook. As you can see, the experts there are predicting drought conditions to persist or intensify across more than half of the Great Plains region. Only North Dakota and parts of its southern neighbor are expected to see some relief.

You'll be hard pressed to find high water conditions anywhere on the Great Plains this year, but as the map above shows, the threat of flooding has been replaced by something much more devastating to the region's deer herds. Hot, dry conditions have eliminated thousands of itinerant streams, small ponds and seasonal water holes deer depend on, concentrating herds on the few remaining sources of water. As deer population densities around these water holes increase, so do the chances for transmission of disease, specifically the deadly Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD).

Earlier in the summer, Nebraska was the first Great Plains state to report a substantial outbreak of EHD among its whitetail herd. By the first of August, Nebraska's Big Game Program Manager Kit Hams said nearly 250 cases of EHD has been discovered along the Platte, and since then the numbers have increased and reports have spread as far west as Garden County. Kansas official are also reporting cases of EHD killing deer in at least 24 counties there, with the heaviest concentration in the north-central and eastern parts of the state. So far, the Dakotas have been quiet when it comes to the disease, but you might remember North Dakota got hit particularly hard last year.

I hate being the harbinger of all this doom and gloom, so let me point out that despite the challenges hunters across the Great Plains (with maybe the exception of North Dakota) had a banner season in 2011. From September to December, my in-box was full of photos from friends who had either tagged a trophy buck or had caught one on camera. I even lucked out on a nice buck here in my home state of Nebraska (after getting a butt-kicking in Illinois). It's safe to say, we can expect more of the same in 2012, hardworking hunters will overcome whatever obstacles get in the way and I expect some good reports to start coming in from my contacts out in the field, despite the drought and disease.

Rut Reporter David Draper grew up hunting deer and small game throughout this region and presently lives on a family farm in Nebraska. Draper, former communications specialist for Cabela's and an authority on the Great Plains, subsists on a diet of duck breast and venison. States covered: ND, SD, NE and KS.