In a normal year, the Game and Fish Department’s fall advisory board meeting for northeast North Dakota would be held in a small town such as Fordville or Pekin, N.D. The main drag would be lined with pickup trucks, and the local sportsmen’s club would put out a spread of goodies that most likely would include homemade chili as the main course.
This isn’t a normal year, though, and the Game and Fish Department held its fall meetings virtually this week because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That meant I had to make my own chili for Tuesday night’s online session, a two-hour overview from department staff on everything from online licensing to hunter education and fishing tournaments.
It was moose chili, though, made with burger from the North Dakota cow moose I shot in the fall of 2019 so it was an appropriate main course for the topics on the evening’s agenda.
Game and Fish is mandated to hold the meetings every spring and fall in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.
As it did in the spring, the department offered two virtual meetings instead of eight in-person meetings for the fall round of sessions. The virtual meeting for the four western districts was Monday night, Nov. 30, and the meeting for the eastern half of the state was Tuesday night, Dec. 1. Game and Fish staff, including director Terry Steinwand, deputy director Scott Peterson, wildlife chief Jeb Williams and fisheries chief Greg Power were in the department’s Bismarck headquarters.
Typically, deer hunting is the dominant topic of the fall advisory board meetings so that will be my focus here.
Williams gave a quick overview of this fall’s deer gun season during his online presentation. Advances in online technology and the department’s switch to online licensing have helped the department get a jump on determining deer hunter success, Williams said.
Traditionally, Game and Fish has relied on a mail survey it sends to a random sample of deer hunters to measure the success of a particular year’s hunting season. This fall, for the first time, the department sent those surveys electronically to hunters who provided email addresses with their licensing information, Williams said.
To date, about 50% of those hunters have emailed their questionnaires back to the department, he said, and the results show a statewide deer hunter success rate of nearly 69%.
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With traditional mail surveys, that information wasn’t available until sometime the following spring.
“It really provides the department with quicker feedback as far as that data and that information goes,” Williams said, adding he doesn’t expect the success rate to change much once the department crunches all of the survey numbers.
The department will email a reminder to hunters who haven’t returned the questionnaires electronically, Williams said, and will follow up with a paper copy.
“It’s always a good reminder to help us out with those surveys,” he said. “It’s a great tool for us to have, to be able to gauge where we’re at in the state.”
Williams also gave an update on this fall’s efforts to test for chronic wasting disease, the brain disease fatal to deer, elk and moose that first was found in 2009 in hunting unit 3F2, which borders South Dakota in the southwest part of the state.
This year’s testing efforts focused on western North Dakota, along with 3F2, Williams said, and hunters have dropped off just over 2,000 deer heads at Game and Fish drop sites throughout the survey area.
“Unfortunately, we did get two positives back from unit 3F2,” Williams said. “The good news there is it’s in 3F2, and we definitely expect there to continue to be some positives in that area.”
As of Tuesday, the department hadn’t gotten any positive results back from other hunting units in the western survey area, Williams said. Hunters who dropped off deer heads also can check the results on the profile pages they set up when buying licenses on the Game and Fish website, Williams said.
As it does every five years, Game and Fish soon will begin the process of setting new deer management goals, Williams said. The most recent goals, developed in 2015, called for a deer population high enough to offer 75,000 deer gun licenses while maintaining a 70% hunter success rate.
The department offered more than 69,000 deer gun licenses this year, but it hasn’t achieved the 75,000-license goal in the past five years, Williams said. The pandemic has delayed the goal-setting process for 2020, he said, but the next five-year goal will call for enough deer to offer more than 75,000 deer gun licenses.
“I think all indications are that more people still want more deer on the landscape,” he said.
The challenge this time around, Williams said, is that setting goals is a “very public process” that isn’t possible with the crowd restrictions recommended because of COVID-19.
“We visit with district offices, make trips around the state visiting, and we obviously want feedback at advisory board meetings,” Williams said. “So, stay tuned on this process. We're going to be working on it, but it might be delayed just a little bit.”