Prairie bulls rewrite the record books

Pictured is a prairie bull’s antlers. Courtesy photo

OPINION — The estimated age of a few of the bull elk at this weekend’s hunting expo at the Civic Center in Rapid City came in at 12 to 14 years.

The only way a modern bull elk attains that elder statesman class is by living through a period of hunting moratorium.

The Harding County season has only been open for a few years and the new unit that encompasses the remainder of western South Dakota had its inaugural season this past fall.

Several bulls taken from these newly minted prairie elk units will vie for the top rankings in South Dakota’s record books.

The top bull at this year’s contest came in with a score nearing 417 inches, far exceeding any previous animal taken in the state.

It caused me to imagine a time in the past when elk were greater in number, but perhaps hunted more intensely by bear, wolves, lions, and indigenous people.

Wild elk can live from 13-18 years if protected and left unmolested.

But I imagine it might have been very hard to do so when pursued by so many predators.

Even into the mid 1800s great herds of wildlife gathered along the northern edge of the Black Hills. Archeological records show that three different tribes controlled the region at different times.

Those winter herds served as a dependable winter food bank that ensured the continued health and wellbeing of the people.

Sadly, market hunters tapped that same resource as they attempted to supply the thousands of miners that descended on the Black Hills searching for gold.

The animals quickly disappeared.

There had to have been great numbers of predators that followed the herds.

Winter would have become a desperate competition as antelope, deer, elk, and buffalo fought for the forage while fighting the frigid temperatures and dodging the spears and arrows, claws and fangs.  

I doubt many bulls survived long enough to reach the ages of these modern elk.

I’ve written previously about Teddy Roosevelt’s visit riding horseback during the winter all the way from Medora, N.D., just to witness the last of the antelope herds.  

The elk, buffalo, and deer were gone already.

Seeing elk once again expand across the Dakota plains and the eastern part of the country through the efforts of conservation groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation gives hope that more records will topple in the future.

There weren’t many antlers at this year’s competition, but the size and quality of the genetics was mind blowing to many of us who had hunted the Black Hills as boys.

We all admitted to taking the first spike that was offered as licenses were unlimited and hunting pressure ensured that few bucks lived to see their second year.

There were few closed roads back then and hunting involved a constant flow of traffic as shooters drove past dozens of does in search for even the glint of an antler.

My own first buck was a three by three that still fits neatly into the palms of my cupped hands.

The trophy bucks at the contest were enormous in comparison. One whitetail with a typical frame scored over 200 inches.

Measures claimed that only a broken brow tine kept it from being the new state record in that category.  

Sitting quietly on the table besides that rack was another whitetail with more than ten points per side.

It scored 186 inches and just beat out another deer for the second ranking.

Several mule deer also broke the 200-inch bar and all those in attendance were put on notice.

We just might be living in the “good-old-days.”

With the world record archery bighorn taken so recently from our Badlands and now having 400-inch bull elk shot on our prairies, Gov. Noem will feel mounting pressure to add to the number of auction tags she can designate for habitat enhancement programs.

The Speirs family has owned and operated Crow Creek Wildlife Management Service since 1996.

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