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Deer hunters should keep their eyes and ears open for other hunters and groups in the field. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times, even if it’s not loaded, because every gun should be treated as if it is loaded. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)
Deer hunters should keep their eyes and ears open for other hunters and groups in the field. Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction at all times, even if it’s not loaded, because every gun should be treated as if it is loaded. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

N.D. Game and Fish seeks input on how to provide deer hunting opportunities

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outdoors Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

FORDVILLE, N.D. — How do you maintain hunting opportunities in the face of declining deer populations and diminishing wildlife habitat?

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 That’s the question officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department are wrestling with after offering only 59,500 deer gun licenses last fall — the lowest number since 1983. Long gone are the days when Game and Fish offered more than 140,000 deer gun tags, as the department did from 2004 through 2009, and the agency was under the gun — so to speak — to reduce deer numbers.

“We were told there were too many deer,” said Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck. “We had landowners and even hunters telling us there were too many deer.”

In its place is a “new normal” of fewer deer and reduced hunting opportunities triggered by a combination of severe winters, aggressive harvest and habitat loss colliding at once.

The trend would have been difficult to envision 10 years ago, when basically anyone who applied for a deer gun license could at least get a doe permit, if not several. Last year, by comparison, some 27,000 hunters who applied for a deer gun tag were relegated to the sidelines.

People were upset, Kreil said, so the department is exploring options.

“The goal is to close the gap between applicants and licenses available,” he said.

More than 100 people packed the Community Center in Fordville on Monday night to learn more about deer management strategies and offer input to Game and Fish officials about how to provide deer hunting opportunities when populations are down.

The meeting was one of eight input sessions Game and Fish held around North Dakota in February. Other meetings were held in Devils Lake, Tioga, Jamestown, Anamoose, Bismarck, Casselton and Dickinson.

“We’re in the business of giving people the opportunity to go hunting,” Kreil said. “That’s what we’re about. What we’re looking for is something that will provide the most opportunity for people during these hard times, knowing we can go back if (deer populations) rebound.”

Why the meetings

Game and Fish since 1975 has used what it calls a “unitized system” of deer management, dividing the state into 38 hunting units and allocating a set number of gun tags in each unit based on factors such as aerial surveys, previous hunting success and on-the-ground observations from field staff and others.

After offering the lowest number of gun tags in 30 years, Kreil said it became apparent during last fall’s round of statewide advisory board meetings that Game and Fish needed more discussion with hunters about deer, deer management and how licenses are allocated.

Kreil said comments from hunters have ranged from no change, to shortening the season, eliminating nonresident licenses, having to sit out for a year after shooting a buck, to a “one-deer” system in which a hunter would have to choose whether to hunt deer with either a bow, rifle or muzzleloader — among other options.

As was obvious Monday night, for every potential action, there will be a reaction.

 “The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has no preferred alternative,” Kreil said. “Before that, we needed to talk to hunters, and that’s why we’re here.

“Our job isn’t to sit there and think about how we can keep people home — it’s the other way around. We’re looking for creative ideas on how to deal with this.”

Historical view

The Game and Fish meetings began with a 45-minute presentation offering an overview on deer hunting in the state, and the highs and lows it has encountered since the 1940s, when a report suggested North Dakota could not sustain more than 9,000 deer.

After fluctuating through the late 1950s and all of the ’60s, deer hunting success rode a steady upward trend from the late ’70s to the mid ’80s, when North Dakota hunters shot more than 50,000 whitetails. As the Conservation Reserve Program hit the landscape in the late 1980s and boosted wildlife habitat, hunting success rode a steady uptrend from 1990 to 2005, with a couple of blips after the severe winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97.

The state’s deer harvest peaked in the mid-2000s, when hunters killed more than 90,000 whitetails, and CRP acreage in North Dakota approached 3.5 million acres. But as CRP acreage declined and aggressive management began to affect deer numbers, the whitetail harvest by 2012 dipped to less than 35,000.

At the same time, three consecutive severe winters beginning in 2008, followed by another tough one in 2012-13, further pressured deer numbers — and hunting opportunities.

The pendulum had swung too far in the other direction.

“Had we known (the strategy) would be followed by three bad winters, we would have done things different,” Kreil said. “But there was no way to know that.”

Archery concerns

Kreil said the department also has heard from bow hunters, who worry any changes will restrict the hunting opportunities they currently enjoy. Besides a season that runs from September to January, archery hunters can buy licenses over the counter, shoot either a buck or a doe and can hunt anywhere in the state, without having to draw a license by lottery like rifle or muzzleloader hunters or be restricted to a specific unit like rifle hunters.

That concern was apparent Monday night in Fordville, as well, although some bow hunters in attendance seemed receptive to the idea of a one-deer system — pick your weapon — as long as it’s not a regulation that remains in effect if populations improve.

“It isn’t a bow hunter vs. gun hunter thing — it’s about giving the most people the opportunity to hunt,” Kreil said. “We don’t have the market cornered on answers; that’s why we’re doing this.

“The last thing we want to do as a Game and Fish Department is drive a wedge between other hunters.”

Not this year

Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand, who also attended the Fordville meeting, said the department will go through the comments it received both during the meetings and online and decide whether to implement any season or licensing changes early in April.

Even if changes are on tap, they likely wouldn’t occur until the 2015 deer season.

“If there is a change, we need time to make sure there are no mistakes and give people a chance to understand it,” Kreil said. “If you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it right. If you’re going to do it right, you’ve got to take the time.”

In a perfect world, North Dakota would have enough deer to support about 90,000 deer gun licenses and there’d be ample opportunities for hunters to go afield with a bow, rifle and muzzleloader every year if they so desired.

 “What we’re hearing here tonight is people like their bow, muzzleloader and Remington .270,” Kreil said. “Is there a system that will allow (them) to use one of those every year?”

In the end, habitat is going to be the driver not only of recovering deer populations, but better hunting opportunities.

“It won’t happen until people step up and say they want North Dakota’s hunting heritage to be preserved and re-establish the value of wildlife habitat,” Kreil said.

“It’s all habitat based,” Steinwand added. “What our goal is — that’s really up to you.”

How to comment: The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is taking comments about how it allocates deer licenses until March 17.

To comment online or view a full hourlong presentation of the Bismarck deer management meeting, go to gf.nd.gov and click the “North Dakota Deer Management Request for Public Input” link here.

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Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 
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