Lack of snow hampers aerial deer surveys

The mild winter and lack of snow was good for deer and other wildlife, but the conditions put a damper on aerial big game surveys in both North Dakota and Minnesota.

Bill Jensen
Big game biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

The mild winter and lack of snow was good for deer and other wildlife, but the conditions put a damper on aerial big game surveys in both North Dakota and Minnesota.

Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said crews were only able to fly two hunting units to sample deer populations because there wasn't enough snow on the ground. That's out of more than 30 units across the state.

Snow is crucial to spotting deer from the air, and this winter, there was very little white on the landscape. Kreil said the department only flew aerial surveys in Unit 2A in the far southeast corner of the state and 3F2 in the southwest, a unit where deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said he looked at weather data back to 1949 and found that the winter of 2010-2011 was the second-toughest on record -- only the winter of 1996-97 was worse -- while this winter was the easiest on deer in 62 years.

Jensen based his assessment on a formula that calculates winter severity based on the number of days from November through March with 14 inches or more of snow on the ground and a temperature of 19F or colder.


"This winter is the mildest since 1949, and I can't go back any further because the information isn't available," Jensen said. "That just shows the swing that's occurred."

John Williams, assistant regional wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said DNR pilots were able to sample deer in the area of a minor bovine tuberculosis outbreak near Skime, Minn., before the snow melted. But the DNR had to cancel a planned aerial elk survey in northwest Minnesota, along with a survey of two deer permit areas, because the snow disappeared so fast.

Williams said the DNR wants at least 8 inches of snow on the ground for its aerial surveys.

"All winter long, our conditions for doing survey work were not present," Williams said.

Still, managers said, the lack of snowfall wasn't all bad.

"It's kind of a mixed blessing," the Game and Fish Department's Kreil said. "On the one hand, we're not getting the data, but on the other hand, every man and beast needed a break."

Expect fewer deer tags

It probably won't come as a surprise to most North Dakota deer hunters, but the Game and Fish Department said this week the deer kill during the 2011 gun season was down from the previous year.


Game and Fish said 95,000 hunters shot about 49,000 deer for a success rate of 51 percent. That's down from 64 percent success in 2010 and the 10-year average of 70 percent.

Kreil said the success rate was the lowest the department has documented since adopting its unit management system years ago. Under that system, Game and Fish allocates tags based on estimated deer populations in about 30 hunting units across of the state.

"That doesn't come as a surprise to anybody," Kreil said. "Everybody knew deer numbers were down."

More telling, Kreil said, was the effort hunters had to put in to shoot a deer last fall. In recent years, he said, hunters spent anywhere from one to 1½ days to shoot a deer. This year, he said, hunters put in two to 3½ days and in some cases more than five days of effort to kill a deer.

Kreil said the department is in the process of setting license recommendations for the 2012 deer season. Game and Fish offered 109,900 deer gun licenses last year, and this year's total will be "significantly less," Kreil said.

"I think it's going to be an eye opener when (hunters) see the number of licenses that are available," he said.

The last time Game and Fish offered less than 100,000 deer tags was 2003, when about 90,000 licenses were available, Kreil said. This year, he said, hunters can expect "considerably" less than 90,000 tags to be available.

"It's not inconceivable you could have 20,000-plus people that don't get a doe license," he said.


Kreil said Game and Fish will have license recommendations in time for the spring meetings it holds in each of the state's eight advisory board districts. This year's spring advisory board circuit includes meetings April 10 in Minto, N.D., and April 11 in Finley, N.D.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Randy Kreil
Wildlife division chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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