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Some North Dakota species have experienced decline in recent years

Pheasant (Photo Courtesy North Dakota Game and Fish)1 / 2
North Dakota Bighorn Sheep (Photo Courtesy North Dakota Game and Fish) 2 / 2

North Dakota’s wildlife species generally increased throughout the state after game management began in the 1930s, following decades of unregulated hunting, and once the landscape recovered from the devastating drought of the 1930s.

In recent years, however, a combination of pressures including harsh winters, energy development and a sharp loss of conservation acres that provided wildlife habitat has resulted in declines for many species, in the view of conservationists and wildlife advocates.

Here are summaries of some key species:

Mule deer and white-tailed deer

North Dakota’s deer population is in sharp decline after experiencing a boom until 2008, when a succession of harsh winters dealt them a severe setback.

Because their numbers were flourishing until then, game officials, responding to complaints from farmers and other landowners and motorists, approved more lenient hunting limits.

This year, game officials will issue 48,500 licenses, 11,500 fewer than last year – and far below the approximately 150,000 issued during the population boom. Mule deer are found mostly in the Badlands, while white-tailed deer are found statewide.

Deer numbers appear to continue to decline, especially in eastern North Dakota, largely due to loss of habitat, primarily loss of conservation acreage.


Pronghorn, often erroneously called antelope, peaked in the early- to mid- 2000s with a population of about 15,000, benefiting from abundant grassland habitat and mild winters. Starting in 2008, the pronghorn population plunged, though began a modest recovery in 2012. As a result of the sharp decline, only a limited hunt will be allowed this fall, the first since 2009, with a “conservative” total of 250 licenses available.

Bighorn sheep

The bighorn sheep, which was reintroduced to the Badlands in 1956, remain relatively stable, with a population just under 300. The annual survey tallied 293 in western North Dakota, virtually unchanged from the year before.

A lamb count will be taken in March, when they are almost a year old. Biologists expected a bumper lamb crop this spring. Last year, winter mortality for adult sheep was low. A group of bighorns was moved away from Highway 85 two years ago to avoid traffic deaths, and a wildlife crossing is being built on the highway near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park to help the sheep and other species safely cross.

Wildlife officials hope more game crossings can be added along Highway 85 as an expansion project continues.

Sage grouse

The sage grouse, very specialized in its habitat selection, is struggling at very low levels in southwestern North Dakota, the edge of its range. This spring, biologists counted the lowest number of males on record, 31, on half a dozen strutting grounds. That compares with 50 on 11 leks last year.

South Dakota and eastern Montana saw similar decreases. Sage grouse have very low reproductive rates, making recovery slow. Because of the very low numbers, wildlife biologists fear a possible genetic bottleneck could be a factor in the struggling population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the sage grouse as an endangered species.

Mountain lions

Because they are so elusive – even radio-collared lions can’t be tracked by air – biologists have great difficulty surveying mountain lions, which have become increasingly scarce in recent years, judging from hunting success.

Game officials establish a quota of 21 kills in recent years, after peaking in 2011-12. Last year, hunters bagged nine mountain lions. A study of mountain lions, including estimated population, range and food habits, should be completed late this summer.

Other fowl

Pheasant populations have struggled in recent years, with the loss of grassland habitat, but this spring’s population index was up slightly from last year, with rooster crowing as the barometer. The loss of more than 2 million acres of conservation grasslands reduces pheasant nesting grounds. As a result, pheasants are down sharply, about a third from their peak, judging from the index. Brood surveys began this month and will continue through September, but biologists say the loss of habitat will continue to restrain numbers.

Ducks, on the other hand, are up 23 percent from last year, and 110 percent above the long-term average, with a spring survey calculating a population of 4.9 million. The wet conditions have helped ducks cope with loss of conservation acres.