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North Dakota deer season preview: Impact of EHD on whitetail populations remains to be seen as hunting season approaches

Hunters in EHD-affected hunting units of North Dakota can expect fewer deer in localized areas, but the impact will vary within units, the Game and Fish Department said.

North Dakota deer.jpg
Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department

The outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, a midge-borne illness that is especially hard on white-tailed deer, has put a damper on hunting prospects and hunter enthusiasm in some parts of North Dakota, but deer numbers in other areas offer plenty of cause for optimism going into the regular deer gun season.

North Dakota’s regular deer gun season opens at noon Central time Friday, Nov. 5.

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The Game and Fish Department on Wednesday, Oct. 13, said it would allow hunters with whitetail or “any” deer gun licenses in several western North Dakota hunting units to turn their licenses in for refunds because of EHD, as the disease is commonly known.
The first confirmed report of the illness, which occurs periodically in North Dakota, occurred in August, and some areas have sustained moderate to significant deer losses, the Game and Fish Department said.

Because of that, Game and Fish is offering refunds for hunters with antlered whitetail, antlerless whitetail, any antlered and any antlerless licenses in units 2H, 2I, 2J1, 2K1, 3A1, 3A3, 3B1, 3B2, 3B3, 3C, 3D1, 3D2, 3E1, 3E2, 3F1, 3F2, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F. Hunters who return their licenses will have their bonus points restored, if applicable, to the same number of points they had before this year’s deer gun lottery.

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As of Thursday, Oct. 28, “just over 1,000” deer tags had been turned in for refunds, Randy Meissner, licensing manager for Game and Fish in Bismarck, told the Herald.

“Outside of those EHD areas, whitetail populations had been trending upward the last couple of years,” Casey Anderson, wildlife chief for Game and Fish, told video project supervisor Mike Anderson in the Oct. 28 “North Dakota Outdoors” webcast on the department's website. “Time will tell exactly what the EHD outbreak did in those areas, but for the rest of the state for sure, there should be good whitetail populations.”

Hunters in EHD-affected units can expect fewer deer in localized areas, but the impact will vary within units, the wildlife chief said.

“Those units weren’t affected evenly across units, so there’s going to be areas where there (are) good deer populations and possibly areas that might need some harvest, actually,” he said.

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Casey Anderson, wildlife division chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Red River Valley impact

EHD outbreaks tend to be most severe during drought years such as this one. The disease, which hits whitetails the hardest, also was documented for the first time this fall in the northern Red River Valley, where die-offs have been reported along the Red River south of Drayton and east of Warsaw, North Dakota.

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Henry Duray of Grand Forks, whose family owns property and hunts along the Red River in Pulaski Township east of Warsaw, says they’ve found at least 20 dead deer on their land and two neighboring properties.

There’s definitely more, Duray says, but they haven’t done a more thorough search because it’s “too depressing.”

Henry Duray.jpgHen
Henry Duray. Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

EHD typically subsides after hard frosts kill the midges that transmit the disease, but frost this fall was late in coming.

“The problem for the deer in our area generally is big and long-lasting floods and then tough winters,” Duray said. “I never figured on this. It will take several years for the population to rebuild.”

Deer populations across North Dakota have been on a slow but mostly steady rebound since a series of severe winters, combined with declining acreage in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, caused the Game and Fish Department in 2014 to offer only 48,000 deer gun tags statewide, the lowest number since 1980.

By comparison, Game and Fish in 2004 offered a record 145,250 deer gun licenses in a season in which North Dakota hunters killed 98,500 deer for an overall success rate of 74%.

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Those were the days of seemingly endless bonus tags and concurrent licenses that allowed hunters to take deer with a bow, rifle or muzzleloader during the appropriate deer seasons.

Game and Fish this year offered 72,200 gun licenses statewide, an increase of 3,150 from 68,650 tags available in 2020. Based on department statistics, 58,146 deer hunters shot 39,322 deer during the 2020 gun season for an overall success rate of 68%.

CWD testing on tap

Game and Fish is encouraging hunters in select units of central and western North Dakota to submit deer heads to be tested for chronic wasting disease during the upcoming deer season. Samples will be collected for testing from deer taken in units 2H, 2I, 2J1, 2J2, 2K1, 2K2, 3A1, 3A2, 3A3, 3A4, 3B1, 3B3, 3C, 3E1, 3E2, 3F1, 3F2, 4A, 4B and 4C.

First found in North Dakota in 2009 in the southwest part of the state, CWD is a slow-moving brain disease of deer, moose and elk that can cause population-level impacts under high infection rates.

Game and Fish has confirmed 44 positive cases since 2009, including 18 new cases from the 2020 hunting season.

“Many folks are aware of the fairly bad epizootic hemorrhagic disease year we’ve had,” said Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian for Game and Fish. “While EHD is a different disease from CWD, it illustrates the impact diseases can have on our wildlife populations. And unlike EHD, which is cyclical, CWD can become an increasing, annual pressure on our herd.”

Knowing where CWD is in the state and how many deer are infected is critical for managing the disease, Bahnson said; that’s why voluntary testing is crucial.

Last year, only about 7% of hunters turned in deer heads for testing in units where Game and Fish was targeting its surveillance efforts, Bahnson said.

Game and Fish tested about 2,700 animals – 1,089 mule deer, 1,542 whitetails, 123 moose and “50 some” elk – during the 2020 hunting season, Bahnson told the Herald in a January interview.

“One major goal is to confidently determine what areas do not have CWD,” he said. “We need to test a lot of deer to make that assessment, which is why hunters’ willingness to help is so important.”

North Dakota’s deer gun season continues through Sunday, Nov. 21.

  • More info: gf.nd.gov.

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Rules of the hunt

Here's a look at season dates and other info related to North Dakota's deer gun season:

  • Season dates: Noon Central time Friday, Nov. 5, through Sunday, Nov. 21.
  • Licenses: The North Dakota Game and Fish Department offered 72,200 licenses for this year's deer gun season. All of those licenses have been sold.
  • Info/regulations: gf.nd.gov/hunting/deer.
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