Officials report healthy herds, increasing populations, but urge awareness
By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF
For the first time, Oklahoma big-game hunting seasons open Saturday with a Chronic Wasting Disease protocol in effect but biologists report a healthy outlook nonetheless.
Archery seasons for white-tailed deer, elk, antelope, and black bear open Saturday, the most popular of which is deer.
Archery hunting, with traditional bows and crossbows, accounted for 30 percent of the 117,629 deer killed by Oklahoma hunters in the 2021-22 season, according to Dallas Barber, big game biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The CWD report notwithstanding, big-game populations of deer, elk, black bear, and antelope all are healthy with both numbers of game and hunter harvest trends increasing, according to state harvest statistics.
Last season’s overall deer harvest was the third-highest on record. An estimated 117,216 archers participated and set a record harvest for the third year in a row with 36,522 reported, about 30% of all deer taken.
“We welcome that growing trend of archers with open arms,” Barber said.
While overall numbers were down slightly from 2020, likely due to a boost during COVID-19, a goal to make antlerless deer (does) at least 40-45% of the harvest was met for the first time in years. Biologists label the increased doe harvest “imperative” for the statewide health of the deer population.
State statistics show most deer are killed in November—with rifle hunters and archery—but the first weeks of October are among the busiest for archers.
Hot, dry days ahead
Drought conditions and a forecast for warm temperatures—although not as hot as the past two years—do present some challenges for hunters, Barber said.
Hunters should be aware of fire dangers from campfires, smoking, and driving vehicles into dry fields, he said. Hot temperatures also make the quick recovery of game and field dressing of meat a high priority.
“That’s mission critical. It’s not a time to lollygag,” Barber said. “I understand people want to take photos but the quicker you can get the hide off and get the entrails out the better. Get it quarter and on ice or hanging in a cooler as soon as possible. That’s best practice when you’re managing table fare. That will give you the best tasting meat.”
The CWD protocol should not hinder hunters this year, according to Micah Holmes, assistant chief of information and education for the Wildlife Department.
Technically, the state remains the only one in the surrounding region without a record of a positive test for the neurologic disease among free-ranging deer or elk, he said.
“We have tested more than 10,000 deer since 1999 and we haven’t found it in Oklahoma yet. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not here, it just means it hasn’t turned up in our tests.”
Oklahoma officials follow herd-health testing protocols similar to surrounding states, he said.
The Wildlife Department and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry activated its CWD response plan because of a Texas case discovered just 2.5 miles south of the state line near the western Panhandle town of Felt on Sept. 9.
Wildlife officials increased surveillance and testing of road-killed deer and elk in the area but none has been found. The area sees relatively low numbers of hunters but some may be asked to submit samples of harvested deer or elk, he said.
“In that area, we just want to be cautious to watch for any additional cases,” he said.
Beyond a call for awareness, the protocol won’t have an impact on most hunters, Holmes said.
“We just tell hunters to continue to use basic common sense and good hygiene when cleaning any animal and disposing of the carcass, especially parts around the skull and spine,” he said. “As always, we would want anyone who sees a deer or elk that is extremely thin, unafraid of humans, or walking in circles, to report that as soon as possible.”
With seasons open in surrounding states and Oklahoma, Holmes said hunters are reminded that regulations prohibit the transport or possession of any cervid (deer, elk, or moose) carcass from outside the state. Only processed meat, taxidermy, or antlers attached to a cleaned skull plate or skull with all tissue removed are allowed.
CWD is a fatal, neurological illness that occurs in North American deer, elk, and moose. Since its discovery in 1967, CWD has spread to 30 states and two Canadian provinces.
Two domestic elk herds in Oklahoma tested positive for the disease, in Oklahoma County in 1998 and Lincoln County in 2019. Both herds were euthanized.
There has been no known documented transmission of CWD from deer and elk to humans and livestock. However, in areas where CWD is known to be present, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that hunters strongly consider having those animals tested before eating the meat. The CDC does not recommend eating meat from infected deer.
Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.