Nebraska’s big game hunters had plenty to be happy about in 2015.
Harvests of three species -- elk, pronghorn and mule deer – were robust, and whitetail deer have recovered from a 2012 outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, said Kit Hams, big game program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks.
Hunters reported taking 48,000 whitetail deer, the state’s most abundant big game. Of those, 28,500 were bucks.
Nebraska lost about 30 percent of its whitetail population in 2012, and the herd remains smaller than it was in 2011. But that is a good thing, Hams said.
“We don’t want to get much higher than we are right now,” he said during a Thursday Game and Parks Commission meeting.
As the population rises so does damage to crops and collisions with cars.
“When we were at the peak levels, we had landowner complaints through the roof. Right now, we’re in a real sweet spot. We’re getting very few landowner complaints. The hunters are satisfied. The buck quality is high.”
The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office got 285 reports of deer versus vehicle collisions in 2015, which is more than the 231 reported in 2014 but fewer than the 402 reported in 2011 when the whitetail population peaked.
To keep the whitetail in check, Hams suggested Game and Parks increase the number of permits for harvesting bucks without antlers for next season in most areas.
Nebraska's mule deer herd also has rebounded after suffering setbacks in 2012 due to disease and wildfires during the drought that year.
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Hunters killed nearly 10,650 mule deer in 2015, of which 8,876 were bucks making it the fourth highest number of bucks taken in a year. That is 1,379 more bucks than the 7,497 than were taken the year prior, the single biggest annual increase on record, Hams said.
"I don’t know any other state that is in that condition with their mule deer population. That is a great thing for Nebraska," he said.
The mule deer population remains far smaller than the whitetail in Nebraska, and mule deer are considered less of a pest because they do less damage to crops, Hams said. He expects the mule deer harvest to hit a new record high this year or the next.
Pronghorns, sometimes referred to as pronghorn antelope, had a record year for permit sales in 2015, with 2,259. Less than half of those were filled, but hunters got 779 bucks, the 11th highest number on record and 155 does or fawns, which ranks 45th on record. Hams recommended the Game and Parks Commission increase permits for both bucks and does.
Hunters took 189 elk in 2015, including 105 bulls and 84 cows. The year tied with 2012 for the most bulls harvested and was No. 2 for cows.
It was the top year for the number of elk with at least 6-point racks coming in at 93 percent of bulls. Hams said he would like to see the average age of bulls taken increase from 4.73 years to 5. He recommended Game and Parks issue fewer bull permits and more cow permits.
Hams said the Pine Ridge bull elk population has not recovered from fires in 2012 when elk left the area to escape the flames and have not returned.
Nebraska's bighorn sheep population remains steady at about 360. Game and Parks expects to issue a single permit this year to be drawn by lottery. Bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the state in 1981 with additional animals brought to the state to bolster numbers and start herds in different areas in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2012.
There was no mountain lion season in 2015 and no decision has been made regarding 2016.