Two years of severe drought may do some hunters a favor when firearms deer season opens on Wednesday. Cover, food and water are extremely limited in many areas.
“Our deer are grouped more than normal, and associated with anything that’s wet or green,” said Lloyd Fox, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism big game program coordinator. “If you can find places with both and some cover, you should be in for a pretty good hunt.”
But he cautions the drought has hurt populations in some areas, and deer hunting may suffer for several years to come.
“I would anticipate we are missing some deer, certainly in several places, and (some) of those would be where (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) has been particularly strong,” Fox said. “Some places have had it for two consecutive years. That’s been very rare in the past.”
EHD occurs when water sources become very low and stagnant, concentrating deer and allowing a small biting insect to transmit the disease to the localized population.
“It’s a spotty distribution. You can have the virus and a lot of dead animals on one farm and a few miles down the road no dead animals at all,” Fox said. “People with limited places to hunt may find numbers substantially less than what they’re used to seeing.”
Some of those spots are considerably larger than during most serious EHD outbreaks, which mostly kill deer in late summer.
Fox said Douglas County has been particularly hard hit, especially around Clinton Reservoir and some property owned by the University of Kansas north of Lawrence.
“KU had a substantial reduction last year and the population is even lower this year,” said Fox, who is largely basing the claims on what was found on the annual fall spotlight survey that’s just been completed. “They were finding numerous animals dead or very ill in August again.”
Tom Bowman, a retired biologist and taxidermist from Wakefield, said there appears to be some significant die-offs in several counties north and northeast of Manhattan.
“The jury is still out, but a lot of people I’ve talked to are telling me the numbers just aren’t there this year. I’m even hearing it from guys who are bringing in big deer,” he said. “It sounds like numbers are down 50 percent or more in quite a few places.”
That said, Fox said numbers remain good to very good in some eastern Kansas counties that had EHD outbreaks, according to the fall survey. “We’ve got areas, like around Emporia, where we had the disease and the populations may be at an all-time high,” Fox said.
CWD is most prevalent in the eastern one-third of Kansas, and very rare in western Kansas.
In many places, particularly southwest Kansas, Fox said the drought has been very tough on fawns. Stress from extreme heat, a lack of food and water makes it tougher for does to raise healthy young. A lack of cover and weakness also makes fawns far more vulnerable to predators like coyotes.
“One year of low fawn (survival) is probably not a big deal, but when you get back to back, things start to add up,” Fox said. “You start seeing fewer deer during years after that.”
Fox said mule deer generally aren’t as affected by drought as are whitetails.
Since reproduction was good several years ago, he said the numbers of mature bucks for trophy hunters should still be good this season in many areas. A lack of cover, and concentrations around rare good food sources, could make them easier to find than usual.
It’s down the road three to six years that the absence of deer from the 2011 and 2012 year classes could really hurt the state’s trophy quality. It takes most bucks that long to grow quality antlers. Fewer female fawns because of those poor year classes will mean fewer does for reproduction, too.
Things also don’t look good for the 2013 crop of fawns over much of central and western Kansas, either.
Fox recently returned from western Kansas, and noted that he saw many once-dense fields of Conservation Reserve Program grasses that had been broken out to grow crops, or hayed or grazed for emergency forage for drought-stricken cattle herds.
Many of the fields had also been hayed or grazed last year. Because of the drought, such areas show little growth this year.
“We just have a lot of CRP fields where there’s just nothing this year,” Fox said. “That’s not at all good for next year’s fawns. CRP is our best-quality fawning areas in a lot of western Kansas. When it’s as low as it is now, our fawn production next year is going to suffer.”
Fox said that even with good winter and spring moisture, the warm season grasses planted in most CRP fields don’t really start to grow until early summer. By then, a lot of fawns will probably have died from the elements or predation.
Last year Kansas deer hunters shot about 97,000 deer. Fox said the harvest was pretty well-balanced across the state and with a lot of antlerless whitetails in the mix.
He’s not sure about this year’s numbers, or what may be offered in future seasons.
“We may have to, in the future, cut back on some opportunities,” he said. “If we lose fawn crops again, it’s something we’ll certainly have to consider.”