Antelope, Elk and Bighorn Sheep Populations Increase

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Nevada's 2005 hunting season will go into the record books in terms of the numbers of antelope, desert bighorn sheep and elk harvested, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW).

"Our harvest records go back to the 1940s for elk and pronghorn, and back to the 1950s for desert bighorn, and last year was a record year for all three of these species," said Mike Cox, NDOW staff biologist.

The record harvest is in response to record population levels for all three species statewide.

Cox says good environmental conditions together with increased efforts in transplant and relocation efforts should be credited for populations that are on the increase.

"Though the Sheep Range is on the mend and will never reach the peak numbers it had in the 1980s, we have so many more sheep in other parts of the state thanks to the efforts and bighorn sheep support groups over the last 20 years," said Cox. He estimates that about 5,500 desert bighorn sheep are now in the state. Desert bighorn sheep were at their lowest levels in the early 19 th century due to unregulated hunting, disease and competition. Since the 1960s their populations have been on the rebound due to careful management and targeted releases in appropriate habitat.

Elk numbers are also on the increase, with an estimated 8,000 elk in the state. Elk hunters had a particularly impressive season, harvesting 1,246 animals. By comparison, 20 years ago hunters harvested just 82 elk. The size of the elk harvested was also impressive. Of the bulls that were harvested last season, 71 percent had antlers that had at least six points on one side.

Cox termed the number of six-point elk that were harvested as being, "pretty phenomenal." He says few states have the average size point class of Nevada elk. "It's a clear indication that we could be offering more bull elk tags in Nevada and still not significantly impact the age structure of the bull segment," Cox said.

"It's a tribute to the biologists of the past who had the foresight and the vision to say that elk would adapt and do well in Nevada’s habitats," Cox said.

Pronghorn antelope have rebounded from the population crash that occurred in the winter of 1992-93, and are now exceeding their pre-crash numbers in the state. An estimated 20,000 antelope now play across the Nevada range. As a result of this population boom, hunters harvested a record 1,608 antelope last season, 200 more than the previous record that was set in 1992.

Desert bighorn sheep hunters also had a record year in 2005 with 135 rams taken statewide. Possibly the most impressive statistic to come from last year’s bighorn sheep hunt was that hunters only spent an average of 4.7 days in the field, which is nearly two fewer days than the long-term average. This means that the herds and specifically rams are more abundant. The average horn measurement for the 2005 rams was the highest it has been in almost 20 years, with several very large rams taken in many different areas of the state.

Cox said that Nevada's antelope, bighorn sheep and elk have profited from landscape changes that have occurred throughout the West. Shrub communities are being converted to grasslands that benefit these grazing animals.

While the grazers have benefited, browsing animals, such as deer, are not being well served by these habitat changes. Shrubs upon which they rely have been converted to grasses or have become decadent and no longer support their dietary needs.

"It takes decades for shrub communities to restore themselves. Grasses can sprout in a year or two," said Cox.

Even though Nevada's mule deer are not faring as well as the state's grazing animals, deer hunters had a 43 percent success rate, which was again one of the highest success rates in the western U.S. The harvest included 7,100 mule deer, well below the long-term average of 12,000 animals.

Applications for big game tags will be available online at www.ndow.org by late March. Information about big game hunting in Nevada can be obtained online at www.ndow.org.

The Nevada Department of Wildlife is the state agency responsible for the protection, restoration and management of fish and wildlife resources, and the promotion of boating safety on Nevada’s waters. Wildlife offices are located in Las Vegas, Henderson, Winnemucca, Fallon, Elko, and Reno. For more information, contact the agency web site at www.ndow.org.