Sportsmen’s issues discussed at well-attended advisory board meeting

Recent heavy snowfall received over much of the central portion of the state resulted in the postponement of four Advisory Board Meetings, but not the District 2 meeting which was held at Minot’s Grand International Inn this past Wednesday. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is required to hold both spring and fall Advisory Board meetings at eight districts within the state.

Items about the state’s deer season always seems to be popular topics of discussion at Advisory Board meetings. The Minot meeting proved to be no exception. The issue of whether or not a special draw for buck tags should be continued at Upper Souris and J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuges showed that sportsmen were in favor of the current process and that no changes were needed.

Randy Kreil, NDG&F wildlife division chief, proposed to sportsmen that it might be time to do away with special refuge buck tags and open the facilities up to all hunters who had a valid state permit for the unit in which one of the refuges was located. The reason, said Kreil, was to simplify the deer draw process and to eliminate any confusion over refuge regulations.

“You can’t drive on federal refuges. You have to retrieve game on them. Just by the nature they are not going to get overrun,” said Kreil.

Sportsmen said they were OK with the current issuance of buck tags on federal refuges and expressed concern that opening up the refuges to all hunters in the unit would hurt the quality of the hunt and put too much pressure on the resource.

Kreil acknowledged that he heard what sportsmen had to say about the issue and said he saw no reason to further pursue any changes in the refuge deer tag system.

The proposed number of deer gun season permits for 2013 was revealed. It contained a reduction in tags for the second consecutive year. This year’s decrease is proposed to be 5,800 deer licenses. One unit in the Minot area, 3A2, is among the hardest hit with a loss of 500 licenses from 2012. 3A2 is located north of Minot and west of U.S. Highway 83.

Other units where proposed major cuts in deer tags from a year ago include: 2K2, 500 fewer tags; 2F2, 300 fewer tags; 2B, 500 fewer tags; and 2C, 1,000 fewer tags. Increases in the number of deer tags to be issued has been proposed for several units but not enough to offset the proposed decreases.

“Even with modest increases we’re down another 5,800 licenses,” said Kreil. “Frankly, I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anybody, especially northern and eastern part of the state. It’s been another tough winter for deer.”

Several questions were asked and opinions voiced about the state’s declining number of mule deer. Mule deer range is generally considered the Badlands region in western North Dakota. It is an area than has experience tough winters four of the last five years, coupled with unprecedented energy development.

Game and Fish has entered into a five-year study to obtain data relevant to fragmentation of habitat brought on by oil development and its effect on mule deer. To date, 90 mule deer does have been fitted with radio transmitter collars.

“Will they come back as western North Dakota changes? That’s the million dollar question,” said Kreil.

Game and Fish has no authority to regulate or interfere with oil development. Their role is limited to an advisory capacity. Some oil companies are receptive to working with Game and Fish. Others are not.

“We’re trying to get ahead, trying to work with oil to minimize the impact,” said Kreil. “We can advise where to put wells and roads. People say they don’t see any problem with oil in the canyon they hunt in; well, someday coming, your canyon will have oil development. It’s a matter of how it gets done. That’s what scares people and why we have people burning the midnight oil trying to find ways to minimize the impact. Ninety-plus percent of the minerals in the National Grasslands are leased. They are going to be developed sooner or later by somebody.”

One question at the meeting concerned the number of oil wells drilled horizontally under Lake Sakakawea, whether or not the practice would continue beyond its current scope and does the state have the resources to contend with an accidental release of oil from beneath the lake.

“The Game and Fish Department does not have the capability to respond to an oil spill,” explained Kreil. “We don’t have the training. We don’t have the equipment. We don’t have the expertise.”

According to Kreil, several oil companies have banded together to discuss ways to avoid spills in the lake and formulate a response plan should such a spill occur.

“They don’t want a spill like the Gulf. They are trying,” noted Kreil. “A half dozen companies drill on spills.”

It’s obviously a concern for us,” added Greg Power, NDG&F fisheries division chief. “Van Hook and Parshall Bay are right where the oil is. There’s a lot of concern but the department has no authority over this.”

Among the recent legislative actions discussed at the meeting was HB 1338, a bill that deals with the return of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lands to the state. Proponents of the bill say they’d like to return Corps land above elevation 1,854 feet on Lake Sakakawea, and above 1,620 feet on Lake Oahe, to neighboring private landowners because the lands are “excess” and no longer needed. The bill passed the house, was amended in the Senate and returned to the House for final approval. The House sent the bill back to conference committee.

“We’re scared to death of that bill. We don’t like it very much,” said Kreil. “The unintended consequences are very dramatic. We’d be losing 40,000 to 60,000 of Wildlife Management Acres. This bill would basically negate recreation as a purpose. They’d love that in Missouri. There’s a lot of things at risk here and we’re very, very concerned about it.”