Search for a deer solution

It’s a first for the North Dakota Game & Fish Department. Deer management meetings will be held at eight locations in the state beginning next Tuesday.

The reason? The state’s deer population is believed to be at its lowest point in 30 years.

Despite a drastic decline in the number of deer hunting licenses issued in recent years, the trend of fewer deer appears to be continuing. Major changes to how deer tags are allocated may be on the horizon.

“We’re taking public comment to find out if there is a consensus among deer hunters, a straightforward signal of what they want us to do,” said Duane DeKrey, Game & Fish deputy director. “There’s a lot of things on people’s minds out there. The

muzzleloaders, archery hunters and deer gun hunters all have their own peculiarities.”

The number of deer licenses issued reached a high of 149,500 in 2008. In 2013 the number had dropped to 59,500, nearly 15,000 of which were landowner gratis tags. That left about 45,000 licenses to be issued by lottery among nearly 70,000 applicants, meaning about 25,000 hunters did not get a deer license. In previous years some deer hunters were issued multiple licenses.

“We’ve been here before,” said DeKrey. “The number of tags issued is about the same as 1984 but our carrying capacity has dropped dramatically.”

Carrying capacity refers to how many deer the landscape can support. In North Dakota the energy boom has impacted countless acres of deer habitat in the western part of the state. In addition, the state currently has 1.7 million fewer acres of Conservation Reserve Program acres, or CRP, and the number is expected to drop further.

“We project CRP to be around 600,000 acres in 2016,” said DeKrey.

The state boasted 3.4 million CRP acres a few years ago, which Game & Fish has often cited as a boon for wildlife. Now, with CRP dwindling and energy production on the rise, deer numbers are dropping. A series of harsh winters didn’t help the deer population either, but a return to previous population highs appears unlikely.

“You have to have habitat to carry deer,” said DeKrey.

Game & Fish is in the midst of conducting its annual aerial surveys of the state’s deer herd. Some of the flights have been delayed by poor weather or lack of snow cover in survey areas. However, a number of hunters participating in the 2013 deer gun season have expressed disappointment and concern about low deer numbers. Some say the season should be closed entirely until the population rebounds. Others say eliminate doe hunting until deer numbers improve.

“What we have now is very preliminary numbers,” said DeKrey. “What we are hearing and seeing is that the deer population is stable to down a little bit. We’re calling the upcoming meetings special deer management meetings, but they are more to get input on the allocation of tags.”

According to Game & Fish, no determination has yet been made as to how many deer hunting licenses will be issued in 2014. However, further reduction in tags may be necessary. So, too, is the process by which archery hunters obtain deer tags.

Currently archery tags are unlimited. Some hunters are advocating that archers should be subject to the same lottery restrictions as deer gun hunters. There are also those who believe hunters should be eligible for only one tag per year and choose if they wish to hunt with gun, bow or muzzleloader. The number of gratis tags and non-resident tags issued will also likely come under discussion.

Some changes to the deer season can be made by Game & Fish proclamation. Others will require legislative approval, meaning major changes to the state’s deer season will likely not be made until 2015.

According to DeKrey, the meetings will open with a presentation explaining deer population trends and hunting seasons. Public discussion will follow. Those who are unable to attend one of the eight meetings are invited to comment on the Game & Fish website as soon as that format becomes available.