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More elk licenses proposed, but majority are antlerless tags

RAPID CITY (AP) -- Hunters may have a lot more opportunities to draw an elk license this year but only if they are OK with shooting a cow. During a South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission meeting earlier this month, GF&P officials prop...

RAPID CITY (AP) - Hunters may have a lot more opportunities to draw an elk license this year but only if they are OK with shooting a cow.

During a South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission meeting earlier this month, GF&P officials proposed raising the number of available elk hunting licenses from 953 last year for the Black Hills Firearms season to 1,698 this year.

The caveat is 1,255 of those tags would be the antlerless variety and only 433 would be "any elk" tags. During last year's hunting season there were 430 "any elk" tags and 500 antlerless elk tags.

The proposed increase would be for both the 2016 and 2017 seasons. An "any elk" tag allows the hunter to shoot either a bull or a cow elk while an antlerless tag only allows the hunter to shoot an animal without visible antlers.

"With these increases in tags it would slow the growth of our elk population in the Black Hills and essentially would stabilize the population," John Kanta, a regional wildlife manager with the GF&P, told the Rapid City Journal.

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The state GF&P conducted aerial surveys of the Black Hills in 2013 and again this winter to come up with an elk population estimate. Currently that number sits at 7,200 elk in the Black Hills excluding Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.

Without the increase in tags, Kanta said, the population would likely balloon to 8,000. Even with the increase, the population is expected to grow 7,400, according to models.

"We looked at our population models and we decided we need to put the brakes on and slow the population growth," Kanta said as a reason for an increase in antlerless tags.

GF&P officials had tried raising the number of antlerless tags before in hopes of curbing the population. In 2005 and 2006 the total number of Black Hills Firearms Elk tags eclipsed 2,400 each year, and more than half of those were antlerless. Soon after, elk populations began to decrease sharply, and the GF&P was strongly criticized by some in the hunting community who claimed they had issued too many antlerless licenses.

Kanta said the biggest change with elk management since 2005 is that the Game, Fish & Parks now has an elk management plan in place.

"A lot of what drove back then was social pressures and gut reactions," Kanta said. "Now we have a plan in place and a stated objection, we aren't trying to decimate the elk herd in the Black Hills; we are trying to keep it around 7,000."

Wildlife officials published a 100-plus page report in 2015 on how elk should be managed in the Black Hills. That report looks at things like environmental factors and uses population estimates from aerial and ground surveys to come up with a sustainable population for the Black Hills.

Kanta said multiple issues besides social pressure were working against elk population after 2005. He cites that the Black Hills were in the middle of a drought which would have created less food for the elk. Also, mountain lion populations during that time were much higher than they are now.

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Because of the decrease in population after 2006, the GF&P had to cut hunting licenses to the point where there was only 570 available in 2012. Since then however, elk populations have slowly climbed and along with them the number of licenses.

The GF&P will host an open house to discuss the new elk hunting proposals on from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 24 at the Outdoor Campus West. The meeting will consist of discussions on elk research, Custer State Park elk management, 2016 elk aerial survey information, elk recruitment and survival studies, elk population model projections, the elk license drawing process and information on elk damage programs for landowners.

The South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Commission will finalize the elk hunting seasons at their April 7 and 8 meeting in Brookings.

Related Topics: HUNTING
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