Rifle season opens for more than 160,000 license holders
By KELLY BOSTIAN
For the CCOF
Oklahoma shoppers have Black Friday; Oklahoma deer hunters have the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
More than 160,000 hunters licensed to take a white-tailed deer with a modern rifle will hit the woods Nov. 19-Dec. 4, 2022, with the majority making it count on opening weekend. The next two weekends of the year historically mark the majority of the state’s annual harvest of more than 100,000 deer.
Wildlife officials say the annual kill helps keep deer populations in check and reduces the odds of things like vehicle collisions and crop damage and it serves to keep the overall population healthier.
While the timing of the modern rifle season is traditional, conditions constantly change.
For the first time, this year hunters in Cimarron County are encouraged to bring in deer to be checked for Chronic Wasting Disease. The request follows the report of a Texas deer found with the always-fatal disease just 2.5 miles south of the Oklahoma state line early in September.
“It’s voluntary but anyone who takes a deer or elk in Cimarron County can bring in their deer,” said Dallas Barber, big game biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
While a CWD response plan is in effect because of the Texas deer, officials still have not documented CWD in a wild ungulate population in Oklahoma. Most of the deer killed in Cimarron County are taken during the rifle season, Barber said.
“We should get a fair number of samples from that area in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Arrow rifles debut in Oklahoma
Also new is a regulation that allows rifle hunters to use arrow rifles, also sometimes called air bows.
The state legislature passed a law allowing for the use of the rifles and the Wildlife Conservation Commission passed rules for their use in August. Hunters must purchase a $20 permit to use one of the weapons, and they may be used only during rifle season. Approval of the new rules came too late for the print version of the wildlife regulations but can be found in the online version.
The weapon looks like a short, heavy BB or pellet gun and works in a similar manner, except the compressed air is used to fire a full-sized arrow from the barrel. Manufacturers’ specifications show most are lethal at distances less than 75 yards. Oklahoma is one of the multiple states that have legalized them for hunting in recent years.
CWD and arrow guns are a very small part of the deer season picture, however.
Hunters killed a total of 117,629 deer last season over the combined, archery, muzzleloader, and modern rifle seasons. It was the third-highest total ever. An estimated 163,903 hunters with rifle tags accounted for 59 percent of that harvest with 68,879 in their column, according to the 2021-22 Big Game Harvest Report. Similar results are expected this season.
E-check watched closely
Barber, the author of that report, said he will be on duty opening weekend, but he will be at a desk focused on computers rather than in the woods with the thousands of hunters clothed in orange vests and hats for safety.
“I will be making sure E-check doesn’t have a meltdown,” he said.
E-check, the digital reporting system deer hunters must use to lawfully report their kills within 24 hours, has an especially big job as hunters leave the fields on opening weekend.
Hunters checked in roughly 18,000 deer on opening weekend alone in 2021, according to the harvest report. In terms of both effort and harvest, the weekend traditionally outpaces any other period by a wide margin.
It is important that the system runs smoothly, or if there is a glitch it is quickly fixed, Barber said.
“We’re looking at logging a little over 50 percent of the harvest taking place in the next 16 days,” he said.
Season on pace with 2021
Weather and habitat conditions have been mostly favorable for hunters this season and for deer for most of the year, even if some in heavy drought areas might show less antler growth than their full potential.
At this time the main breeding period, or rut, is winding down but bucks will be actively searching for the last of the does still in heat, he said.
“It’s always exciting because deer are on the move and you never know what might come in,” he said.
The 2022 harvest is so far on pace with last season, but the percentage of female deer is a bit higher. Taking what the regulations call “antlerless deer” from the population actually helps create a healthier population overall, Barber said. The antlerless harvest figure hit 41 percent last season.
“It’s sitting at about 51 percent now so this will give us a head start toward that 40 to 45 percent overall,” he said. “We’re looking good. Everything is setting up for a great season.”
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.