The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has completed the third year of a five-year aerial survey of mule deer in the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska.
The survey, which covers eight subunits with the most suitable mule deer habitat within the Pine Ridge deer management unit, indicated a decrease in the overall mule deer population, but an increase in the number of the species’ fawns. Commission employees counted 636 mule deer compared to 758 in 2015 and 862 in 2014. The count of 261 fawns is up 25 from 2015.
The survey, conducted from a contracted helicopter the morning and evening hours of Feb. 9-11, covered a total of 426 square miles. The Antelope Creek subunit, which borders Wyoming and South Dakota in the state’s northwestern-most corner, registered the highest mule deer density with 4.75 per square mile. The area near the Niobrara River in Sioux County followed with 3.27. Both of those densities exceed all those recorded in 2014, the first year of the survey, but are short of the 8.53 near Belmont and 5.15 in the Antelope Creek area last year. The density of all subunits combined came in 1.48 mule deer per square mile, a decline from 1.76 in 2015 and 2.01 in 2014.
This survey’s goal is to build population trend data to assess population levels and guide management decisions. The use of a helicopter helps locate animals in the rugged terrain, but biologists conducting the survey said locating animals can be challenging if snow cover is spotty, such as it was this year.
The survey is also helping determine how the mule deer population responds to the prohibition of doe harvest, and is helping the Commission’s goal of providing optimum hunting opportunities. The mule deer population has been a concern in the Pine Ridge and other areas of the American West experiencing declines despite quality habitat and harvest restrictions. In 2013, following a year of monumental drought, wildfires and disease, the Commission began prohibiting mule deer doe harvest portions of the Pine Ridge unit. In 2014 and 2015, the doe prohibition was expanded to the entire unit.
In addition to getting a count on mule deer, the surveyors recorded a significant increase in white-tailed deer from last year, steady numbers of elk and a slight decline of bighorn sheep.