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Struggling populations of antelope might mean smaller harvest this fall

PIERRE — Biologists for the state Wildlife Division won't conduct an aerial survey of South Dakota's antelope herds this year.

They know antelope numbers remain low and nothing is expected to significantly change in the weeks and months ahead.

"It's pretty hard to spend that money flying pronghorns," Andy Lindbloom, a senior big game biologist, told members of the state Game, Fish and Parks Commission last week.

Because the populations have declined so sharply, the commission is proposing that fewer licenses be offered to hunters for the 2014 rifle season scheduled to run Oct. 4 through Oct. 19.

There would be 2,705 single-tag licenses available to South Dakota residents and 61 single-tag licenses for non-residents.

In addition to the license cutback for residents, Tripp and Lyman counties and the Fort Pierre National Grasslands would be closed for the 2014 season as well.

"I really think you're on the right track, where scenarios dictate what you're going to do with the population. It's positive," commissioner Barry Jensen, of White River, said.

The commission will hold a public hearing at 2 p.m. on July 8 starting at the Holiday Inn Express at Fort Pierre.

Last year, the season's second weekend was blown out by the Atlas blizzard that shut down much of the western one-third of the state.

There were 3,467 licensed resident hunters. They took 1,454 bucks and 480 does for a success rate of 48 percent.

Lindbloom said the preference is at least 60 percent. That mark hasn't been hit since 2007.

The antelope harvest was 7,056 in 2008 and peaked in recent years at 14,100 in 2009. Since then it dropped every year: 8,949 in 2010; 4,493 in 2011; 2,637 in 2012; and 1,935 in 2013.

Severe winters after 2009 hurt the population. Reproduction fell to a record low in 2013, with 59 fawns per 100 does, according to Lindbloom. He said the rate was 71 in 2012.

"Usually we're around that 80 fawns per 100 does," he said.

Two studies are to be done by South Dakota State University researchers.

One will attempt to determine the best sample sizes for making deer and antelope population estimates and whether antelope surveys should be performed in August or September. Currently they are done in both months for antelope.

The other study will try to track antelope survival, seasonal movements and home ranges, with a focus on Harding and Butte counties. That work starts this summer and will run into 2017.

Lindbloom said those results could help refine methods used for aerial surveys in the future. He said it's possible that aerial surveys would be scheduled every other year and eventually there could be more than one year between them.