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Dokken: Habitat a focus of Game and Fish Department presentation on deer numbers

In the Red River Valley, where habitat is limited, whitetail counts in Unit 2C north of Grand Forks were down 29.3% from 2022. Numbers in Unit 2B between Grand Forks and Fargo were down 47.5%.

Casey Anderson aerial survey presentation.JPG
In this screen shot, Casey Anderson (standing), wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, shares results from the department's aerial winter deer survey during the District 7 spring advisory board meeting Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Bismarck. The meeting was live-streamed on the Game and Fish Department website. Seated at the table in front of Anderson is Greg Link, chief of the department's conservation and communications division.
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken

As goes habitat, so goes the abundance of deer in North Dakota – especially during severe winters like the one just past.

That was a takeaway message Tuesday night, April 25, during the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s spring advisory board meeting in Bismarck.

Held at the department’s Bismarck headquarters, the meeting – for Advisory Board District 7 – was live streamed on the Game and Fish Department website. Game and Fish is required to hold the public meetings twice a year in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.

Casey Anderson, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, presented an overview of the department’s winter aerial deer surveys. It was a tough winter for deer, and as late as March 22, the entire state had snow cover, Anderson says.


The abundance of snow allowed the department to fly its winter deer survey across the entire state – both a blessing and a curse, Anderson says – but the extreme conditions hammered deer in many areas.

At least 12 inches of snow cover is required to get a reliable count of deer numbers from the air.

Often, young animals are not abandoned or deserted, and the mother is probably nearby. Young wildlife are purposely secluded by adults to protect them from predators.

White-tailed deer numbers declined in nearly every part of the state. In the Red River Valley, where habitat is especially scarce, whitetail counts in Unit 2C north of Grand Forks were down 29.3% from 2022, Game and Fish statistics show. Numbers in Unit 2B, an area extending roughly from Grand Forks to Fargo, were down 47.5%.

Whitetail numbers in Unit 2A in the far southeast corner of the state declined 26.5%.

The department just finished its mule deer surveys in western North Dakota, and those numbers declined, as well, Anderson says.

“It’s kind of a gradient from south to north, and southern units weren’t nearly as bad as the northern units across the Badlands,” he said.

Given the severe winter and its impact on deer numbers, hunters can expect fewer deer gun licenses this fall, Anderson says. Game and Fish actually delayed sending its proposed proclamation of deer hunting regulations to the governor’s office for approval to gather more information about deer numbers on the landscape.

Game and Fish last year offered 64,200 deer gun licenses, and numbers for this year will be available within the next few days.


“If I gave you a number, I might be wrong, so I’m not going to give you the exact number, but we are going to see a pretty good decrease in deer licenses this year,” Anderson said.

During the heydays of the federal Conservation Reserve Program in the mid-’90s, when North Dakota had more than 3 million acres of land enrolled in CRP, deer numbers were quick to recover from severe winters.

“We saw that in ’96-’97 when we had a winter just like this,” Greg Link, conservation and communications chief for Game and Fish, said Tuesday night. “We had habitat, and within a couple of years, we were right back on track.”

The number of available deer gun licenses reflected the habitat bonanza. From 2001 through 2005, deer gun licenses in North Dakota exceeded 100,000 every year, Herald archives show, peaking at 145,600 in 2005 before declining slightly to 143,500 in 2006.

Since then, however, North Dakota has lost more than 2 million acres of CRP, a trend largely driven by higher commodity prices. With less habitat on the landscape, deer numbers in North Dakota going into this past winter were still teetering from winters from 2009 through 2011.

“And now we get smacked down again,” Link said. “The climb is so slow. We just have to get those resources back to really grow. That’s just North Dakota – every four, five, six years, you’re going to get a smackdown again. So, it’s going to take that ability to rebound and make hay when the sun’s out.”

That’s where programs such as the Meadowlark Initiative come into play, Link says. Funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, the Meadowlark Initiative aims to bring industry, agriculture and conservation partners together to preserve existing grasslands and hopefully expand that habitat.

The goal, Link says, is to try to restore some of the “connective tissue” – such as fencerows, shelter belts and waterways – that has been lost with habitat on the landscape.


“The Meadowlark Initiative is really just trying to rally all our partners together – industry, ag and conservation – going, ‘Hey, it’s going to take everybody, let’s get together, let’s pool our resources, manpower, our funds, our networks, the folks we know, the relationships we have, let’s work together and quit throwing stones at each other,’ ” Link said.

Red River Valley deer harvest density.JPG
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Perhaps the most striking impact of habitat loss was reflected in a series of charts Anderson shared showing declines in “deer gun harvest density” – the number of deer per square mile shot by hunters – since 1997.

The impact was less severe in areas with habitat, but a chart for the Red River Valley showed a steady decline in harvest density of about 90% since 2005, from a high of about 1.8 deer per square mile in 2005 to about 0.2 deer per square mile in 2022.

“It’s just another thing to show the importance of habitat and where we’re heading if we can’t get things turned around,” Anderson said.

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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