Big game hunting and viewing opportunities in Nebraska are available for five species: white-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn, elk and bighorn sheep. Both species of deer provide annual hunting opportunities for most residents and nonresidents who wish to hunt. Pronghorn and elk populations in the northwest offer more limited, but consistent hunting opportunities. Bighorn sheep offer great viewing opportunities, and in some years, limited hunting.
Big Game Species
The pronghorn is North America’s swiftest land mammal and one of the fastest in the world. Its speed, endurance and keen eyesight are well adapted to the short-grass prairies and gumbo badland of the western United States. Although commonly called an antelope, the pronghorn technically is not an antelope but the sole species in a family found only in North America. Pronghorn hunting is one of Nebraska’s most challenging big game experiences. Animals can be glassed and horn size determined at great distances. Herds were at the brink of extinction in Nebraska by 1907 when all hunting seasons were closed. Slow expansion occurred for the next 50 years, and hunting seasons have been held every year since 1958. Pronghorn occur primarily in Northwestern Nebraska and provide hunting opportunity to archers and firearm hunters annually.
Before 1900, Audubon bighorn sheep inhabited parts of western Nebraska including the Wildcat Hills, the Pine Ridge, along the North Platte River to eastern Lincoln County, and along the Niobrara River. It is thought that the Audubon bighorn probably became extinct in the early 1900s with its last stronghold being the South Dakota badlands.
In 1981, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission released a dozen bighorn sheep in Fort Robinson State Park. Subsequent releases of bighorns in 1988, 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2012 have established bighorns in the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge of Nebraska’s panhandle. Limited hunting opportunities have been available since 1998 through the issuance of auction and lottery permits. Approximately 350 bighorn sheep occupy the bluffs and buttes of western Nebraska.
Herds once common across all of Nebraska became extinct by 1900. In the 1960s a few elk returned to Nebraska, and in 1986 Nebraska had its first modern elk season. Since then, elk and have expanded into hills and rivers of western Nebraska, and the annual passage of young bulls through eastern Nebraska is a common occurrence. More than 1,600 elk have been harvested since the first season in 1986. Nebraska Game and Parks public lands and U.S. Forest Service lands in Ash Creek, Bordeaux and Hat Creek units provide public land hunting opportunities for some elk hunters. However, most elk are taken on private land. It is a good idea to make at least one pre-season trip to elk country before the hunting season to finalize access or to scout potential hunting areas.
Deer were nearly extinct in Nebraska by 1900 due to unlimited hunting. In 1907 the Nebraska Legislature passed a law prohibiting the taking of deer, but recovery took decades. By the late 1930s, deer numbers were estimated at 2,500 in the Pine Ridge. In 1945 the first modern deer season began with a harvest of 275 mule deer and two white-tailed deer. White-tailed deer are now found statewide with higher densities in the east and in riparian corridors. Mule deer occupy the western two thirds of the state and are the dominant species in 20 counties. Hunters will find very good permit availability as archery, muzzleloader, youth and most firearm permit quotas do not sell out until October or when the season closes. Hunters may donate venison to Nebraskans in need through the Hunters Helping the Hungry program.
Big Game Check-In (Telecheck)
The Nebraska Telecheck Program allows hunters to check deer or antelope by telephone or online, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Learn more and access Telecheck