​You Have got to Read This

The draft deer management plan through 2023 is now available for public comment.

There are 414 pages of data that covers the entire history of deer hunting and harvest in our state’s history, literally over a hundred years of wildlife management information. Very few people have the inclination to read through such a document, but for me it is a treasure trove of information that gives readers a better understanding of how successful our Game Fish and Parks has been at managing our shared wildlife resources.

Local Outfitter, Russ Roberts, was on the advisory committee for the plan and offered one of the only proposals for change. For the most part, hunters are satisfied with the direction deer management is headed, but Russ’s proposal would attempt to improve the age structure and allow a few more bucks to live to maturity, more on his plan later.

Striking to me was the wealth of historical data available in the report. Deer have been legally hunted in South Dakota since 1929. In that year 2000 deer tags were available in the Black Hills. Hunting was opened East River in 1947 and didn’t open in the West until 1952. During the 1950’s tags were sold over the counter and were unlimited. By 1985, over 100,000 deer licenses were being sold in high population years.

Archery hunting showed similar growth. In the early years, less than a 1000 deer were harvested each season in the state. With the advent of newer technologies and a few well-placed hunting heroines in popular movies, the popularity of archery hunting has soared. Bow harvested deer averaged near 3000 through the eighties but has climbed above 10,000 in recent years even as overall hunter numbers have declined.

The good news is that west river deer populations are recovering from the recent lows associated with disease and harsh winters and the share of youth licenses has nearly tripled. While this rebound is a great trend for both hunters and wildlife, Roberts expressed some frustration that changes couldn’t be made to do more. Over the four meetings, the nearly thirty members of the work group were given the opportunity to offer suggestions and recommendations for change. Russ has spent the last ten years working on a proposal that would limit the number of buck deer an individual hunter could harvest each season.

South Dakota currently allows hunters to apply for numerous buck tags in the first draw. You can apply to hunt in wildlife refuges, Custer State Park, separate archery and muzzleloader seasons, in the Hills, Prairie, and East River. In the third draw, leftover tags are unlimited. A hunter is only restricted by budget and interest. Other bordering states attempt to limit the number of bucks harvested to allow for a more mature age structure in their herds. Having those restrictions promotes hunters to be more judicious in the animal they harvest.

While few hunters actually have the time, means, or interest to pursue them all, a few do and Roberts would prefer a three buck limit per season, a policy that would satisfy the vast number of current hunters in the field.

The management plan also shows that the reasons why hunters are afield has also changed. As a boy, driving down the main street of Sturgis, having a buck in the box of your truck was more important than it is today. We harvested young deer because we didn’t know if we would see another.

Modern hunters list enjoying time in nature as their number one reason for hunting. Spending time with family and friends comes in a strong second, and they list the challenge of the hunt as the third most popular reason they buy a deer tag.

As the average age of hunters increases, wildlife management will have to change in order to meet their evolving interests.

Russ Roberts has lived his entire life in the Black Hills and has seen many cycles of wildlife populations and working with hunters has allowed him to see their evolution first hand. As hunters age, they will be less interested in killing large numbers of deer and instead spend more time looking for the buck of their dreams. A possibility that will be less likely if some changes don’t come in the proposed wildlife plan.

The comment period is still open and there is so much more to read and more to come in future articles. 

Columnist: Bob Speirs

Bob Speirs – owner and operator of Crow Creek Wildlife Management Service in Spearfish, South Dakota has been writing award winning articles, stories and poems that entertain and educate hunters for over 15 years. Known for his outstanding whitetail management and hundreds of satisfied customers, Bob’s unique perspectives and insights help to educate and entertain hunters everywhere!

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