The deer are not here

The number of deer in North Dakota has been on a steep decline since a record number of nearly 150,000 licenses were issued a few years ago. By 2010 the number of deer gun tags dipped to 117,000, an ominous trend that would lead to further reductions.

Deer gun licenses were slashed to 65,000 by 2012. This year there were 84,745 applicants for 44,900 licenses, meaning nearly one in two residents were denied a deer gun tag. A total of 14,600 gratis tags were issued to landowners.

“With the current situation, with the lowest deer population and number of licenses since 1983, there is a lot of concern about the future of our deer herd and deer hunting opportunities in the state,” said Randy Kreil, NDG&F wildlife division chief. “We decided it is a good time to have meetings dedicated specifically to this topic.”

At a recent round of Game and Fish Advisory Board Meetings conducted at eight locations throughout the state, Game and Fish heard the deer hunting community express their views on deer numbers and deer management.

“The message was they understood deer numbers were low. We had 40,000 people who couldn’t participate last year,” said Kreil. “We’re interested to see what people have to think about options of how to allocate the licenses that are available, how to build up the deer herd at a time when habitat conditions are facing unprecedented threats.”

Energy development in the Bakken oil formation has dramatically changed much of the deer habitat in western North Dakota. Conservation Reserve Acres are on the decline, too, primarily due to high crop prices that make it financially inviting for landowners to pass on CRP payments in favor of turning the soil once again. Game and Fish often cites CRP as a vitally important factor impacting wildlife populations.

While there may or may not be any workable solutions for habitat loss, Game and Fish is facing more immediate decisions on deer harvest and license allocation. Some hunters say deer numbers are so low that the season should be closed.

“I don’t think we’re contemplating closure. That would be a bit draconian and unnecessary, but a condition of lower doe harvest certainly is a real good first step,” said Kreil.

Kreil emphasizes that Game and Fish will be taking a very open approach to what sportsmen and landowners have to say during the upcoming round of meetings. He expects the number of gratis licenses issued, which is a significant and growing percentage of total deer licenses, to be part of the discussion.

Another topic certain to be discussed is how Game and Fish allocates deer licenses and how many one hunter can receive. While the number of archery tags is limited to one per hunter, there is no total limit to the amount of tags issued. Deer gun and muzzleloader tags are issued by lottery, meaning a single hunter could obtain three licenses in a single calendar year. A one deer per year system suggested at Advisory Board Meetings in the past may gain momentum during the upcoming meetings.

Deer season input meetings are scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Feb. 17 at Devils Lake and Casselton, Feb. 18 at Anamoose and Dickinson, Feb. 24 at Tioga and Fordville, and Feb. 25 at Bismarck and Jamestown.