The hunt is on for a solution to deer problem

The Game and Fish Department completed a series of eight public meetings this past week for the purpose of obtaining input from sportsmen regarding deer hunting. The meetings were generally well attended, but still represented only a small fraction of the deer hunting community. Nevertheless, the meetings helped familiarize those deer hunters in attendance with information and statistics known to Game and Fish.

One irrefutable statistic is that deer gun hunting success declined last season. A second is that the state’s deer herd is in decline too. Still another is that slightly more than 26,000 applicants did not receive a deer hunting license last season.

The number of deer gun licenses issued has shrunk from 149,500 in 2008 to 59,500 last year. Based on information supplied by Game and Fish, the number is likely to drop again this year. It means the list of unsuccessful applicants may increase once again. Fewer deer means less opportunity for hunters. There is no magical formula to change that.

The reasons cited by Game and Fish for fewer deer are many. Among them are bad weather, loss of habitat, the impact of energy development and a few seasons of heavy harvest. In defense of Game and Fish, the record harvest years also coincided with peak deer populations, a rise in deer depredation complaints and an increasing number of deer-vehicle collisions.

A fairly common complaint from deer hunters, especially those who were not successful in the lottery, is that too many hunters had two or three licenses while others had none. According to Game and Fish, 10,369 individuals had both a gun and archery license and 245 individuals had a deer gun, archery and muzzleloader license. Of those 245, 90 had three buck tags with a potential to harvest 270 buck deer. Based on that number, a one-tag system would free up 180 buck tags. That’s not enough to appease the 26,000 who had no license at all, but it would be a small start.

Of all the deer hunting seasons, the archery season is the most friendly in terms of obtaining a license. They are unlimited. Given the current situation with the state’s deer herd, I think the number of archery licenses will come under increased scrutiny in the coming months. That would be unfortunate for archers, but there may be little choice if current trends continue.

If the number of deer archery licenses continues to increase, as it did in 2013, Game and Fish may be forced to limit archery deer license sales. Harvest success is a factor too and the success rate is showing an increase as archery equipment and skills evolve. The five-year average harvest success rate for archers in North Dakota is 33 percent, less than the 59 percent rate for gun hunters but more than double what it was several years earlier.

I don’t know what Game and Fish will do about deer hunting, but it seems obvious that there will be fewer licenses issued this year. While fewer licenses may only be a reflection of reduced deer numbers, it also may be just a predecessor of greater changes to follow. Whatever the outcome, I hope that Game and Fish biologists are consulted before any final decisions are made. I think their input is vital to the process.

One very unfortunate result of the deer license issue is that it has created a growing spat between bowhunters and gun hunters. That is incredible to me. The goal of both groups, including those who hunt with bow and gun, should resolve to do what is right for the resource. Partisan, selfish bickering only compounds the problem and divides good sportsmen at a critical time for the state’s deer herd.

Indications are that the deer population may never again return to the high levels experienced just a few years ago. We may see some rally in deer numbers but, given the changes on the landscape, I don’t foresee supply meeting demand unless the number of hunters drops dramatically. That, I think, would be the biggest loss of all.