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Dokken: Follow-up survey paints dire picture of winter impact on deer in North Dakota

Game and Fish conducted a second aerial survey of deer hunting unit 2J2 in central North Dakota to see how the population compared with a similar survey conducted in January.

Deer feeding
Deer congregate at a feeding site west of Thompson, North Dakota, in February 2010.
Herald file photo

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

The calendar might say spring, but the winter of 2022-’23 refuses to bid farewell and give us some much-needed relief.

The full impact of this Winter that Won’t End on wildlife and shallow lakes prone to winterkill remains to be seen, but a good indicator occurred on Good Friday, April 7, when the North Dakota Game and Fish Department conducted a second aerial survey of deer hunting unit 2J1 north of Bismarck and north of Interstate 94 to see how the population compared with a similar aerial survey conducted in January.

“We actually saw a 51% reduction in white-tailed deer,” said Bill Haase, assistant wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck. “It was a dramatic drop in deer, and we certainly could see carcasses and evidence of deer that had died.”

The survey also tallied an 84% drop in mule deer numbers, Haase says, but 2J1 is on the fringe of North Dakota’s mule deer range, farther north and east than mule deer are typically found.


“We’ve had some mild winters where they were able to get through (in 2J1) so obviously, this will push that mule deer population back in that fringe area, where it’s just a few mule deer,” Haase said. “But the bigger thing would be the whitetails definitely took a big hit.

“And it’s probably a fair assumption that the eastern part of the state is going to have similar losses.”

Because of the widespread snow, Game and Fish was able to conduct aerial deer surveys across the entire state this year, Haase says. Snow on the ground is essential for spotting deer from the air.

In terms of winter severity, northwest North Dakota appears to have fared the best, Haase said.

“They certainly had more of an average winter,” he said. “We still were able to fly all that area for deer and moose and everything. We had enough snow on the land to fly our regular surveys, but they had the least of the winter and probably had minimal losses. But the rest of the state had a long stretch of winter. It’s definitely concerning – especially when you consider temperatures for the majority of the winter. We were pretty cold, snowpack was on the landscape the entire time from that snowstorm in November all the way through now, so it’s really that duration of time” that wears on deer and other wildlife.

Even deer that survived the winter remain susceptible, Haase says, especially if these unwelcome spring snowstorms persist.

“They’re maybe at the point where their nutrition, their body condition is at the point where they aren’t going to be able to recover yet,” he said. “We won’t know what percentage of deer that is, but it’s something to be aware of.”

Pheasants will likely take a hit in some areas, as well, but Game and Fish won’t know the full extent of that until after it conducts its spring crowing count surveys and summer roadside surveys, Haase says.


Department staff are currently conducting spring grouse surveys, which will continue through the middle of May, he says. As a native species, sharp-tailed and ruffed grouse are better equipped to handle rough northern winters by burrowing into the snow.

“We aren’t anticipating that we’re going to have as much loss in grouse, that’s for sure,” Haase said. “Pheasants and deer are the bigger concerns.”

Fishing license updates

Get ready to pay more for a fishing license in Minnesota, even if you’re a resident, and more in North Dakota if you’re a nonresident.

The Minnesota House this week passed HF 2310, a massive natural resources bill that includes fee hikes for fishing licenses, among other increases. The bill, which awaited Senate action as of this writing, raises the fee for a resident fishing license to $30 from the current price of $25. Nonresidents, meanwhile, would pay $62, an increase of 35% from the current price of $46. Fishing license fees in Minnesota last increased in 2017.

In North Dakota, a House-Senate conference committee this week recommended a $5 “surcharge” on nonresident fishing licenses, which would raise the price to $53 for an individual nonresident license. Lawmakers recommended the increase as an amendment to HB 1538, the so-called fishing tournament bill.

The surcharge was implemented as part of a compromise on fishing tournament fees. Under the legislation, fishing tournament organizers would now pay an application fee of $75, and a conservation fee of an amount to be determined between the tournament sponsor and a representative of the fishing tournament.

Nonprofits would be exempt from the $75 application fee.

Previously, Game and Fish required fishing tournament organizers to pay a 10% conservation fee on all tournament proceeds, an amount organizers of major tournaments felt was prohibitive.


Using numbers from 2022, when North Dakota sold about 55,000 nonresident fishing licenses, the $5 surcharge would have raised about $275,000 for fisheries initiatives in the state. By comparison, the 10% conservation fee that fishing tournament organizers have been required to pay has generated slightly more than $1 million for local fisheries development projects since 2010.

Even with the $5 surcharge, a nonresident fishing license in North Dakota is still a pretty good deal when compared with surrounding areas.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to fix an error in original version of the story. The Game and Fish Department did a follow-up survey in Unit 2J1 north of Bismarck. The unit listed in the original version of the story was incorrect.

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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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