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East River deer season kicks off Saturday in South Dakota

Strong hunter numbers expected for 2021, disease concerns remain

Deer on the South Dakota skyline. (Luke Hagen / Mitchell Republic)

Another popular outdoor season in the state will kick off Saturday when the 2021 South Dakota East River deer season begins, and officials are again expecting a large contingent of resident and non-resident hunters to take position in their stands in an attempt to bring in that trophy buck.

“It’s hard to believe it’s that time again already,” said Chad Switzer, wildlife program manager with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks in Pierre. “But the outlook with weather is going to be pretty darn nice, and it looks like the rut is going pretty well in this part of the world right now.”

That should bode well for hunters as they start the season, which runs from Saturday, Nov. 20 and concludes Dec. 5. East River antlerless deer season will start up Dec. 11 and run through Dec. 19. The West River deer season is already underway, having started Nov. 13 and continuing through Nov. 28. West River antlerless season runs the same dates as East River.

State officials are predicting a typically busy season, with plenty of hunters and a good amount of deer to both be roaming the prairie.

In terms of hunters, Switzer said virtually all of the available licenses have been gobbled up for 2021. There were 24,240 resident licenses available for this season, and most, if not all, are expected to be in use at some point during the season.


“I would say we sold pretty much every license we had available. Deer hunting is just an attractive outdoor activity for residents and non-residents,” Switzer said. “People love to deer hunt.”

Switzer said there is no official allocation of non-resident licenses, but they are available later in the application process. And some tags are returned after they have been obtained for a variety of reasons, including COVID-19 travel concerns or landowners being hesitant to host hunts due to uncertain deer numbers on their land.

“We have had quite a few tags returned, whether it was for COVID-19 concerns or because of landowners not telling hunters it’s not going to be a good year,” Switzer said.

There are some concerns that the deer population has suffered due to the excessively dry conditions the state experienced in 2021, along with the presence of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and chronic wasting disease (CWD), two afflictions that have been plaguing state herd populations for the last several years.

The dry conditions reduced watering resources and opened up some available hunting areas to emergency haying, which may push some deer away from those locations. And while CWD and EHD had impacted South Dakota deer, numbers should remain relatively favorable, Switzer said.

White tails should be a common sight East River, and while mule deer are generally considered more of a West River specialty, they can also be found east of the Missouri River if hunters look in the right places.

“Prior to the (EHD) that occurred, things looked really good, but white tail populations are strong across much of South Dakota. Mule deer in eastern South Dakota are in a marginal habitat and range and are mostly restricted to adjacent to the Missouri River,” Switzer said.


A white-tailed deer in Sanborn County in South Dakota. (Luke Hagen / Mitchell Republic)

Disease watch

Game officials are still concerned about the presence of EHD and CWD in South Dakota, and are asking hunters to be on the lookout for signs of them as well as the safety procedures for dealing with deer.

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal brain disease of deer, elk, and moose that is caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. Animals infected with CWD show progressive loss of weight and body condition, behavioral changes, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, depression, loss of muscle control and eventual death. Chronic wasting disease is always fatal for the afflicted animal. The disease can not be diagnosed by observation of physical symptoms because many big game diseases affect animals in similar ways.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease is a disease that mainly affects white-tailed deer in the United States. This disease is caused by a virus that is spread by a biting midge. The disease usually affects deer herds in South Dakota in the late summer or early fall.

EHD can affect mule deer, bighorn sheep, elk and pronghorn in South Dakota, but it primarily impacts white-tailed deer. EHD is the most common occurring viral disease of white-tailed deer in the United States. The southeastern portion of the United States has EHD outbreaks every year with relatively few losses of animals. The northern plain usually sees minor disease losses, but some years, losses can be significant, according to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website.

“With the EHD in white tail in South Dakota, we have unfortunately documented quite a bit of that from an East River standpoint,” Switzer said.

Deer on the South Dakota skyline. (Luke Hagen / Mitchell Republic)


Switzer said the GF&P is asking hunters and landowners to be on the lookout for dead deer when out on their hunting excursions and to have their animals tested . While there is no real remedy for the two diseases, neither of which are considered a threat to humans, though consuming deer infected with CWD is not recommended, tracking their spread can help officials develop plans to reduce their presence where possible.

“We appreciate landowners, hunters, everybody that’s a part of it that reports it so we can be reactive to it,” Switzer said.

The diseases have prompted some changes to hunting procedure and have altered some deer transportation rules. Carcasses from deer must be disposed of in an approved landfill. Deer may be completely processed in the field and carcasses left behind on site, though Switzer urges hunters to do so in an inconspicuous location. Complete transportation rules can be found on page 67 of the GF&P Hunting and Trapping Handbook.

Maps of where EHD and CWD has been tracked in South Dakota can be found on the GF&P website.

Hunters in the field

Nick Schrag, of Marion, spent last weekend near Colome for the West River opener. He has been hunting deer for 27 years after having been hooked when he went along with some family and friends when he was 12. That interest only compounded a couple of years later when he shot what, at the time, was the ninth-largest deer ever taken in the state.

His party didn’t take any that large last weekend, but two fellow hunters with him filled their tags with modestly-sized bucks. He also had some opportunities, but decided to hold off on pulling the trigger.

“I saw one or two, but I wasn’t really hungry to take a deer home. I have a lot of food at home. But if something had come across that was really edible and perfect and small, I would have taken one,” Schrag said.

Schrag rarely misses a season, though he skipped last year due to COVID-19. He was glad to be back out in the field, and estimated that hunter numbers were decent where he was, though he said some could have been pheasant hunters, as well. He also saw several vehicles lined up for GF&P inspections when he left for home.


“On the way home, we got stopped by the GF&P, and they had probably a half-dozen trucks waiting to get checked in the middle of the day on Sunday,” Schrag said.

He said he did see some suspected signs of EHD, but did not detect or hear about any sightings of potential CWD.

“We saw two deer, one of them relatively decomposed and the other not so much, that were close to waterways,” Schrag said. “I didn’t see any deer that looked sluggish or slow, like (deer display when infected with CWD).

Trent Nincehelser, of Onida, was getting ready recently for a hunt this weekend in Charles Mix County north of Lake Andes. He used to operate as a hunting outfitter and has since opened an online store called Dakota Secrets , where he and his fiancé sell homemade deer hunting products designed and created based on his years of experience in the field.

Like Schrag, he hadn’t come across any cases of CWD, but he had seen signs of EHD in the area. It appears the deer population is beginning a rebound after what he’s seen so far this season.

“We got hit real bad with EHD, and it’s just getting to the point where they’re coming back around here. We’re starting to see a lot of them.”

—Trent Nincehelser, Onida

“We got hit real bad with EHD, and it’s just getting to the point where they’re coming back around here. We’re starting to see a lot of them,” Nincehelser said. “We’re starting to see some nice deer, but even more encouraging, we’re seeing a lot of yearling bucks. On our property, which totals around 800 acres, we probably caught 40 or 50 yearling bucks on camera this year.”

Keeping both diseases at bay will require cooperation between hunters and the GF&P, he said.


“(CWD) is creeping farther and farther east, and I suspect that we will all have to deal with it at some point. As hunters, if we educate ourselves and we listen to some of those recommendations from the GF&P, we can slow the spread,” Nincehelser said.

Both Schrag and Nincehelser said hunting supplies can be hard to find and try to grab ammunition whenever they can find it.

“Everything is hard to get, it seems. I ordered just enough to get me by through some online suppliers, but I ordered early because everything seemed to be out of stock. So when you find it, you order, and unfortunately you pay for it,” Nincehelser said.

Nincehelser said he had had good luck shopping local hardware and supply stores instead of the larger retailers, but even smaller retailers are often limiting purchases. Still, it’s a nice boost to the local economy.

Schrag said he felt the shortage was exacerbated by some hunters hoarding ammunition, but as more hunters are returning to seek out pheasant and deer, the demand is simply higher, as well.

“I think the pure popularity of going out and shooting has gotten bigger,” Schrag said.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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