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SD deer elusive after EHD outbreak

East River deer season opens today, but some hunters may have trouble finding the animals after more than 2,000 died from an outbreak of EHD. (Matt Gade/Republic)

South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks has issued more deer licenses this year, but the animals may be hard to find.

Andy Lindbloom, senior big game biologist for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, said the department said deer herds have been growing across the eastern half of the state since the state's last major bout of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD, which killed more than 3,700 deer in 2012. But EHD has made an impact again this year.

More than 2,000 deer have been reported dead in 23 counties, with the heaviest losses in Brule, Aurora and Beadle counties, Lindbloom said. GF&P decided to pull leftover licenses and offer refunds to any East River hunters who were concerned about their prospects.

"We are seeing some substantial losses locally," Lindbloom said. "We saw some pretty good interest (in license returns), and we saw a stack of licenses come in and people were returning them, so we anticipate that continued all the way up until the deadline."

The state issued approximately 29,000 resident licenses with about 42,000 individual tags, which are attached to a deer after it's been shot, creating a tag increase of about 33 percent from last year. But following the mass EHD-related deaths, some hunters have lost interest.

Returned licenses had to be postmarked by Friday to receive a refund, and Lindbloom said roughly 1,500 licenses were returned as of noon Friday.

The department also pulled more than 2,000 tags from approximately 1,250 leftover deer licenses, which are licenses that were not purchased in the season's second lottery drawing.

While EHD has been widely reported statewide, including above average deaths northern counties like Brown, Edmunds and Faulk counties, Lindbloom said the disease can be extremely localized, leading to markedly different hunting opportunities from one piece of land to another just down the road.

Andy Petersen, a conservation officer in Davison County, said the disease made a "pretty significant impact" in Davison and Hanson counties, but he's still seen a healthy deer population in some areas.

"In certain areas, I'm still seeing good numbers of deer, but in others, you don't see anything, and a lot of that is due to how EHD spreads," Petersen said. "I think some people will still have deer and be able to have decent hunts. Other areas, it's going to be kind of tough to find some deer."

License totals in flux

Petersen said the timing the state was hit by the EHD epidemic was unfortunate because the population in Davison County recently recovered from the last outbreak for the department to issue more licenses, but he expects numbers to bounce back again quickly.

The number of licenses issued next year will be dependent on a number of factors, including fawn-to-doe ratios, aerial surveys, survival rates and harvest success.

In 2015, East River deer hunters achieved a success rate of 50 percent, the highest since 2008. Before that, the success rate was 49 percent in 2014 but was only 37 percent in 2013, the year after the last EHD outbreak.

In response, GF&P offered 37,835 tags in 2014 — including special buck and landowner tags — a sharp drop from 56,030 in 2013. But GF&P had been cutting the number of tags since 2010, when more than 76,500 tags were issued.

Lindbloom said GF&P does not have a target hunter success rate, but it is under consideration as the department puts together a statewide deer management plan.

GF&P has also discussed sex-specific tags because doe survival is important when trying to raise the population. The department issues antlerless tags, which can be used on a doe or fawn, but Lindbloom doesn't think buck-only tags are necessary.

As the number of licenses issued decreased, the number of bucks harvested has fluctuated between about 17,800 and 11,000, while the number of does harvested has plummeted from almost 21,000 in 2008 to a low of 6,700, meaning hunters are targeting bucks anyway.

"In most situations, we feel like we don't need to go to just a sex-specific license," Lindbloom said.

Lindbloom said hunters may get a boost from the recent storm, which dumped an estimated 4 inches of snow in the Mitchell area Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

He said deer may be more active in snow, which could make them easier to find.

"It definitely puts everybody in the mood, and it seems to put the deer in the mood, too, which is nice," Lindbloom said. "As long as we don't have so much weather that it affects hunter access, I think it makes for a good hunting season opener."

West River deer season has already been open for a week, and Lindbloom said he's heard of hunters having success out west and believes hunters took advantage of last weekend's fair weather to bag a deer early. West River deer season ends Nov. 27, while the East River season remains open until Dec. 4.

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