By Dana R. Rogers
September took so long to get here, and now it’s already slipped away like grains of sand through my fingers. September brings the beginning of our Dakota archery hunting seasons for many big-game species such as deer and elk. It also represents the rutting season for both antelope and elk, two seasons that bowhunters often pine for an entire year to pursue.
While deer and antelope tags aren’t hard to come by for either rifle or bowhunters, our elk populations are restricted by far more factors. The big-bodied wapiti love rough and secluded country, but unlike deer and antelope, they can’t seem to tolerate much human activity and will just keep going and going when they’re frightened or stressed too much.
We have the blessing of having a limited elk population that hunters and wildlife viewers can seek out under the right conditions and areas. In South Dakota, that means the Black Hills and a few pockets in the southwest in the good habitat and river breaks found in and near the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian reservations.
In my opinion, elk are very special. Watching a herd of elk rut and listening to a bull bugle is among God’s greatest creations in our natural world. There’s absolutely nothing like it. If you’re new to elk hunting or have never done it before, once you get an opportunity to hear a bull scream out a challenge on a crisp late-September morning, I think you’ll be hooked. However, if you have tried to draw an elk permit here, you know it’s often akin to winning a powerball lottery (to a hunter at least).
The high demand for elk permits and the numbers of elk that South Dakota can support with its habitat and landowner tolerance levels will just never be much different than what we currently see. Elk migrate great distances in places and require a different type of habitat and seclusion than other species.
It’s a challenging issue, because on one side, hunters certainly want more elk and more elk permits. On the other side, there are some ranchers who do get quite a bit of elk depredation damage to their livestock feed stores.
The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department does a pretty good job trying to mediate and balance these issues. For example, hunters, producers, and GFP personnel and commissioners have worked to create a depredation/damage fund. Five dollars of every applicant’s fee goes to that fund, and damages are paid to landowners who experience elk damage to help keep tolerance levels for the animals in balance. They also have programs to buy and place feed away from livestock operations and build permanent and temporary game-proof fences around feed stores to keep elk and other wild-game animals from destroying hay yards during tough winters.
One area where I personally feel more effort could come from, though, is on the national forest side. More timber thinning and controlled, prescribed burns in the Black Hills can and do help with elk habitat.
In fact, from my short stint working as a wildland firefighter this year, I learned that our Black Hills are a model for timber-thinning harvest. With thinner stands of pine, grass and forbs grow and provide forage for elk as well as cattle grazing on those allotments. Prescribed fire removes old duff, pine needles and dead grasses and creates a new lush forage base with the next rains and sunlight that hit the forest floor.
More permanent water sources can also be created that could provide a benefit to all wildlife. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other conservation organizations have done some great work in places by placing guzzler water systems. Grazing leaseholders sometimes do the same, but once their cattle are removed from the property, so is the water source.
Discussing cattle grazing on national forest land is a subject for another time, but to get more elk and develop relationships that will promote a higher tolerance level for increased elk populations, there’s no doubt hunters, GFP staff, ranchers and U.S. Forest Service personnel have to work together to find common ground and develop ways to provide incentives for all to benefit.
Having been afforded the opportunity to sit on the last elk management panel and this summer’s wildlife damage management panel, I have learned a lot about the topics. I encourage hunters who really do care about wildlife and habitat to become informed and get involved. The Dakotas will never have elk numbers like Montana, Wyoming or Colorado, where you can hunt elk every year or every other year. Heck, even Kentucky has more elk than we do in the Dakotas due to their reclaimed mining habitat, rugged country and tree-covered riparian areas.
With that in mind, ixf you want to hunt elk in the near future and do not have a wealth of preference points built up, my suggestion is that you need to commit to hunting out of state. If you want to see more elk in the Dakotas and have a small chance to get a tag here at home more than just a few times in your lifetime, then please get involved. Get to work improving what habitat we do have, and help increase water sources that provide elk with what they need to thrive. Also, check out prairie-elk opportunities through private ranch operations that you could possibly access on a trespass-fee basis, or look into one of the elk hunts on the Rosebud or Pine Ridge Indian reservations.
Please always remember when you are afield, respect the land, respect the landowner and respect the wildlife.
About the Author: Deer columnist CMSgt (ret) Dana R. Rogers grew up in central South Dakota and now calls the Black Hills home. Contact him with comments or questions at email@example.com.