Outlook on deer situation remains bleak

ANAMOOSE – What is to become of the deer season and how will future deer licenses be allocated? Those were questions very much on the minds of sportsmen attending a deer management meeting conducted in Anamoose by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department last Tuesday.

The number of deer in the state has plunged in recent years. The decline has been reflected in the number of available deer gun licenses, from 149,500 in 2008 to 59,500 last year. The number of applicants for deer gun licenses continues to increase while the herd shows little sign of a comeback.

Further compounding the growing conundrum is the increasing sales of unregulated archery deer tags. Throw in a few seasons of bad weather, loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres, recent record numbers of licenses issued and the energy boom in western North Dakota, and you have what NDG&F Wildlife Division Chief Randy Kreil calls a “train wreck.”

At last Tuesday’s meeting Kreil repeatedly emphasized that more than 26,000 deer gun applicants didn’t receive a license.

“What are we going to do?” Kreil asked the large number of sportsmen and women in attendance. “We’re starting to know these people by their first names because they’re not very happy.”

Nor are they likely to be in the coming deer seasons, unless an unforeseen and complete reversal of fortunes of the state’s deer herd occurs. Fewer deer mean fewer opportunities for hunters, some of whom are increasingly reluctant to accept a change to their deer hunting traditions. Game and Fish scheduled a series of eight meetings to receive input from sportsmen and women regarding the deer situation but, after Tuesday’s initial presentation, it became apparent the event was more of an informational session than a policy-setting event.

“We don’t have a preferred alternative,” said Kreil. “We need to know what you want for recreation and what landowners and producers can tolerate.”

A number of possible changes to the deer season were discussed during the public comment period of the meeting. Ideas ranged from bringing all deer hunting to a halt until the population sufficiently rebounds to creating a one-deer-per-year system.

One member of the audience told Kreil, “I don’t see where any kind of change will make a difference. You are fighting a losing battle.”

“We have to face the fact. As much as we hate to admit it, this very well may be the new normal unless something changes,” responded Kreil. “We don’t foresee 140,000 licenses in this state again in most anybody’s lifetime.

“Number one, the habitat loss that is going on out there today is downright scary. We see it everyday. It’s going on. Number two, we know about landowner and public tolerance for deer numbers at that level. People don’t like it.”

At best, deer numbers in the state are holding their own to declining slightly since last season. Although it has not yet been decided, a further reduction in the number of deer licenses remains a possibility for deer hunters this year, the final year of a Game and Fish five-year management plan that has fallen well short of its initial goal.

“The five-year planning goal was for 124,000 licenses. We’re not going to get there. We have to start again,” said Kreil.

A lot has happened in the past five years tough winters, the Bakken oil boom, loss of CRP and other habitat. Today Game and Fish would be overjoyed if they could issue 90,000 to 100,000 deer tags, but they remain about 40,000 short of that amount.

“How do you add 40,000 deer to the population when our habitat base is being eroded at a significant rate?” asked Kreil.

Hunter success during the deer gun season has dropped from more than 70 percent to an average of 59 percent for the past five seasons. The numbers are reflective of fewer deer on the landscape. Archery success over the same five years has climbed to 33 percent, a marked contrast from a 15-percent success rate during the state’s initial bowhunting seasons.

In addition, the number of archery deer hunters continues to increase, up to 23,000 last season. Unlike gun hunters, bow hunters do not have to enter a lottery in the hopes of receiving a license. The number of archery deer tags is unlimited, meaning an archery tag is a guaranteed method of obtaining a deer hunting license. A number of those hunters are believed to part of the reason for the continued increase in deer bow license sales. A change may be forthcoming.

When asked about the increase in people living in the western part of the state, which is adding new hunters each year, and their proximity to the state’s limited population of mule deer, Kreil acknowledged the potential exists to put even further pressure on mule deer during the archery season.

“We just can’t let that happen,” said Kreil emphatically.

Information that is being shared at the current round of public meetings will be available on the Game and Fish website beginning Wednesday. In addition, Game and Fish is urging the public to submit comments on the department website prior to the March 17 deadline. Any major changes to the allocation of deer licenses is not expected to be made until the 2015 deer hunting season.

“We have to have ample time to work this out. You’ve got to do it right,” said Kreil. “You have to think everything through and you can’t make any mistakes.”