With a few exceptions, spotlighting deer at night in Kansas is illegal. That is, unless the person doing it is employed by the Kansas Fish and Game Commission as a district biologist, like Jeff Rue of Emporia.
On Nov. 17, Rue and three other crewmembers drove down Falcon Road southwest of Hillsboro in a specially outfitted truck, shining spotlights on private property, looking for deer.
“This is something we do every year,” Rue said. “The information we gather helps us manage the deer population according to the biological and social carrying capacity of an area.”
Biological capacity refers to what numbers nature can sustain, while social carrying capacity is determined by what humans can tolerate.
Rue said the official term for deer survey activity done at this time of year was distance sampling.
“We can determine the relative density of the deer population by counting bucks, does, and fawns in different transector units,” he said.
Distance sampling covers a variety of landscape samples with the best areas consisting of a combination of open prairie, cropland, bottom ground, and creeks.
The length of each transector varies from one and one-half miles to 12 miles. A scientific formula which takes into account the angle at which each animal is spotted as well as range finder data used by the surveyors, results in a good determination of the deer population density at that location.
The unit Rue manages encompasses public and private land in an area north of highway 50 and west of highway 77 and includes deer habitat in Marion, McPherson, Rice, Reno, and Harvey counties.
Rue said the data collected two weeks ago in Marion County was not yet compiled so he hesitated to make an estimate on deer numbers there.
Lloyd Fox of Emporia, the Big Game Coordinator for the Kansas Fish and Game Commission is the person in charge of crunching deer survey numbers, Rue said.
“He is the one who develops the long term trends and can tell us, over time, if a deer population is increasing or decreasing in a certain area.”
According to information from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism website, hunters reportedly bagged over 89,000 deer last year in Kansas.
Rue said he did not think it wise to make a prediction about how many deer were out there this year, but numbers could vary.
“There were two main factors affecting deer populations this year,” he said. “Drought conditions were very hard on them, and EHP (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) loss was heavy in a large part of the state.”
Rue said that EHP, sometimes called bluetongue, was a virus spread by small flies commonly known as biting midges, with a high mortality rate on affected deer. Symptoms of the illness include lack of fear of humans, high fever, swollen head, neck, tongue, or eyelids, and difficulty breathing. Almost all deer infected die in one to three days after symptoms become noticeable.
Another disease possibly affecting deer, especially in the northern part of the state, is chronic wasting disease.
“No cases have been confirmed in Marion County,” Rue said. “But we are still doing surveillance in the state and ask people to voluntarily donate deer heads to several designated locker plants where free sampling for the disease is performed.”
There are 19 deer management units in the state of Kansas and survey teams covered each area counting deer sometime between mid-October and the day before rifle season opened.
“We like to be out there when the population is moving,” Rue said. “Pre-rut or heavy rut season is the best time to get the transector data.”
Rue said his department conducted deer surveys after dark because it was easier to see deer at that time.
“Everything we saw this year was pretty much small to average size,” he said. “I can’t give away and secrets of where the big bucks might be hiding. We didn’t see them if they were there.”
The archery deer season runs through Dec. 31. The 2011 Kansas firearm deer season opens today and runs through Dec. 11. Antlerless whitetails may be taken during a Jan. 1 through 8 extended rifle season. Other special open unit seasons are listed on the KDWPT website.
All hunters must be licensed and wear orange.