Nebraska’s diverse landscape supports a diverse variety of huntable wildlife. Here are few of Nebraska’s most popular game birds and animals:
Hunters annually harvest over 50,000 deer out of a statewide herd of 300,000 to 350,000 whitetail and mule deer in Nebraska. Whitetail deer, slightly larger on average than mule deer, are more numerous and are now found in every part of the state. Whitetails prefer wooded creeks and shelterbelts, and are especially thick in the wooded river valleys of eastern Nebraska. Mule deer are found mostly in western and central Nebraska roaming the open plains, relying on rugged terrain and their long-range eyesight for protection.
The archery season starts in mid-September and runs through the end of the year. Muzzleloader season is in December. The main firearm season runs for 9 days in mid-November. “Season choice” permits allow a hunter to harvest an antlerless deer with a bow during bow season, a muzzleloader in December, or a rifle during the regular November season or a special late season in January. The Season Choice permit is an excellent choice for the novice bow or muzzleloader hunter, or for any hunter looking to put meat in the freezer.
Permits in deer units that typically fill quickly are awarded in a drawing. Permits in other deer units, and any remaining permits in ‘draw’ units, are sold first-come, first-served, to residents and non-residents. Hunters can obtain only two buck-only or either-sex permits, but can obtain additional antlerless-only permits. In some years double tags have been awarded to thin herds in specific areas.
Ducks & Geese
Nebraska is at the heart of the Central Flyway, and waterfowl from eastern and central Canada, the northern Great Plains, and as far west as Alaska migrate through the state on their way to summer homes in the south and southwest. Although some 90 percent of the Rainwater Basin wetlands in south-central Nebraska have been drained or destroyed, the remaining wetlands attract huge numbers of ducks and geese in the spring and fall. The Platte River attracts substantial numbers of ducks and geese, especially when area wetlands are dry, and other Nebraska rivers also attract waterfowl.
Backwater areas and wetlands along the Missouri River host large numbers of waterfowl, and the largely unspoiled wetlands throughout the Sandhills provide both migratory and nesting habitat. Hunters can expect to see a wide variety of ducks and geese throughout the year, including mallards, mergansers, blue-winged and green-winged teal, pintail, wood ducks, mottled ducks, canvasback, white-fronted geese, Canada geese, snow geese, and Ross’s geese.
All Nebraska waterfowl hunters are required to purchase a Nebraska Waterfowl Stamp, in addition to a regular hunting permit and habitat stamp. All waterfowl hunters must also register free through the Harvest Information Program. Funds from the Nebraska Waterfowl Stamp are used to acquire and manage waterfowl habitat.
The September teal season usually leads off Nebraska’s waterfowl hunting in September, although an early Canada goose season, designed to help reduce local “nuisance” populations, has been scheduled in September in recent years. October 1 is the usual kickoff for duck season, although seasons vary by region and species. Waterfowl hunters can get in some spring action and help reduce the light goose population that is tearing up nesting grounds in the Arctic during a special conservation action season. The arrival of large numbers of ducks and geese in Nebraska depends upon weather conditions up north. When they arrive, they head for available open water, so local stream and wetland conditions are extremely important for anyone looking to find waterfowl.
Elk once roamed the prairies throughout Nebraska, but over-hunting eliminated this majestic animal from the state by the late 1800’s. Wandering in from Wyoming and South Dakota, elk have established small but growing populations in several areas of Nebraska. The largest group is centered around the Pine Ridge area in the northwest corner of Nebraska. Smaller herds are in Boyd County along the South Dakota border in north-central Nebraska, along the North Platte River in the Panhandle, and an area southeast of North Platte in Lincoln County. Elk are slowly expanding their range in Nebraska.
Out of a total elk herd of several hundred in Nebraska, hunters typically harvest less than 100 elk per year. Permit applications are typically taken in April, and a drawing is held to award permits. Except for the Boyd Unit, the elk season usually runs for about a month starting in late September.
Pheasants are native to China, but have become well-acclimated to Nebraska and are now found throughout the state. Pheasants are popular with Nebraska hunters. An ‘edge’ species, they like to hang out in grassy areas, sneaking into nearby fields to eat. They are typically most abundant in Southwest and Northeast Nebraska, with those region’s mixture of cropped fields, pastures and Conservation Reserve Program fields.
Nebraska’s pheasant season typically starts in the last weekend in October or first weekend in November, and runs through the end of January. A special ‘youth season’ for pheasant, quail, and partridge is held the weekend before the regular opener.
As experiences go, hunting prairie grouse is about as addictive as it gets. Nebraska is home to huntable populations of both sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens, making it a hunting mecca for the truly addicted. Sharp-tailed grouse range throughout much of the Sandhills, and in the Panhandle. Greater prairie chickens range through parts of north central and southwest Nebraska, with populations concentrated in Sandhills prairies. Smaller populations range in southeast Nebraska in the counties along the Kansas border where remnant native prairie remains.
Both birds are native to Nebraska, and live in the wide-open prairies that once covered nearly all of Nebraska. The prairie grouse season runs from mid-September through the end of the year, and hunters can often combine a grouse hunt with a hunt for other wildlife in the later part of the season. In April, wildlife watchers can see greater prairie chickens ‘booming’ and sharptail grouse in mating rituals north of Burwell in the eastern Sandhills.
Pronghorn – technically not an ‘antelope’, although often called by that name – once roamed the open shortgrass prairies of western Nebraska in huge numbers. Today, small herds of pronghorn can be found in the Sandhills and throughout Nebraska’s Panhandle, but the largest concentration is in northern Sioux County centered in the Ogallala National Grasslands. The swift pronghorn can accelerate quickly to speeds of 60 miles per hour and has keen eyesight, making it a special challenge for bowhunters and muzzleloaders.
The pronghorn population in the state appears to be stable or declining, and the Game & Parks Commission has undertaken research to better understand pronghorn habitat needs and mortality. Hunters typically harvest 500-600 pronghorn annually in Nebraska, out of a population believed to be around 6,000. Only Nebraska residents are allowed to apply for a permit, and permit applications are typically taken in April. The archery season starts in August, the Muzzleloader season in September, and the firearm season is in October.
Wild turkey were hunted out of Nebraska by the early 1900’s. Thanks to a release program started in 1959, wild turkeys have made a remarkable comeback in Nebraska, supporting both a spring and a fall turkey season. In the last decade, the wild turkey population in Nebraska has grown substantially, and wild turkey can now be found along wooded rivers and creeks throughout most of the state, and in the Pine Ridge area of the Panhandle.