Hunters fortunate enough to draw a North Dakota deer gun license won't lack for opportunities when the season gets underway at noon Friday, Nov. 9.
Similar to the past several years, the difficulty in drawing a tag remains the issue for hunters in many parts of the state, a trend that isn't likely to reverse itself anytime soon.
Unlike Minnesota, where hunters can buy licenses over the counter and there's no limit on the number of deer tags available statewide, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department offers a set number of gun tags based on factors such as winter population surveys, depredation complaints and the previous year's hunting success.
After peaking in the mid-2000s, deer numbers plummeted during a series of three severe winters in the later part of the decade. Coupled with declining habitat, especially in the eastern part of the state, deer numbers in many areas have been slow to recover.
Fewer deer, of course, means fewer licenses.
"There's no doubt-I'm stating the obvious here-that deer licenses have been quite a bit lower than people have been used to," said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "We've been pretty conservative with those licenses, trying to see some rebound of deer numbers in some areas.
"The folks that are fortunate enough to draw a license, their opportunities are going to be pretty good."
Game and Fish this year offered 55,150 deer gun licenses statewide, an increase of 650 tags from last year. Still, demand far outstrips supply in many hunting units. According to Game and Fish statistics, more than 113,000 prospective hunters applied for deer gun licenses, and nearly 55,000 were unsuccessful in the June lottery.
More than 3,000 antlerless tags remained after the first lottery, mostly in the southwestern part of the state, but hundreds of hunters in eastern North Dakota units such as 2A, 2B and 2C again will find themselves on the sidelines if they didn't own enough land to draw a gratis license.
As an example, Game and Fish offered 1,000 any-antlered licenses and 700 any-antlerless licenses this year in Unit 2B south of Grand Forks. That number is unchanged from last year, when 3,899 residents applied for the 508 buck tags that remained after gratis licenses were issued or the 990 residents who applied for the 435 doe tags that remained after the gratis allocation.
Deer numbers in the eastern part of the state continue to lag behind the recovery that's happening farther west, where Game and Fish has been able to increase tag numbers in many units, Williams said.
"We're not seeing the rebound of deer numbers" in eastern North Dakota, Williams said. "And again, we've talked a lot about this-the landscape looks different as far as carrying the amount of quality deer habitat on it that it once did.
"We've actually had some decreases (in gun tags) in some of these units in the eastern part of the state just because we're not seeing the rebound in deer numbers."
Think of it in the context of a rancher who loses a couple thousand acres of grass, Williams says.
"I'm not going to be able to raise as many cows, right? So, that's kind of the scenario and situation we're in a little bit," he said. "But the farther west you get, things over the last couple years have been good."
Even with fewer licenses, deer hunters with the flexibility to travel had the option of buying surplus antlerless tags in far southwestern North Dakota, where Game and Fish continues to try to reduce deer populations.
Not everyone has that flexibility, though.
"Again, it's one of those situations now that we're not getting complaints from people that have licenses," Williams said. "The deer numbers out there for for people who have licenses are definitely adequate. They have good opportunity at getting a deer. It's just the ability to get a license and the number of years it takes to get a deer license. Some of that eastern area is as tough-and is getting to be even tougher-than even some mule deer units, and so that's a big, big change for a lot of people."
The Game and Fish Department manages North Dakota's deer herd with the goal of a population that's large enough to accommodate issuing 75,000 gun tags with a hunter success rate of 70 percent, the historic benchmark for deer hunting in North Dakota.
Obviously, that goal isn't being reached, Williams says, but at the same time, the explosion in deer numbers in the early to mid 2000s that resulted in Game and Fish issuing up to 150,000 gun licenses wasn't a desirable scenario, either.
North Dakota hunters last year had a success rate of 61 percent during the deer gun season. Game and Fish will revisit its deer management goals in 2020, Williams said.
"I was looking at some historical numbers, and for the Game and Fish Department to be issuing above 85,000 licenses when it comes to deer hunting is much more of the exception rather than the rule from a historical perspective," Williams said. "You take out those handful of years where we had the 100,000 plus (licenses) and even up to nearly 150,000, that's not normal. And as much as people like that, it's not normal for North Dakota."
CWD transport rules
Efforts to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease also will continue this fall, with transport restrictions on deer, elk and moose from states and provinces where CWD has been documented.
Game and Fish also will collect deer heads for testing from hunters in 17 western North Dakota hunting units.
Caused by a rogue protein called a prion, CWD is a fatal brain disease that affects deer, elk and moose. CWD isn't known to affect humans, but once it's on the landscape, it's there to stay, Williams says.
North Dakota has had a handful of CWD cases since the disease first was discovered in 2009, all in the far southwestern part of the state.
Game and Fish this year expanded the transport restrictions to include animals from Montana, along with deer Unit 3F2 in southwest North Dakota, Williams said. Those restrictions include not bringing the spinal column or any brain material into North Dakota-or outside 3F2-but hunters can transport quarters or deboned meat from the restricted areas.
A full listing of transport rules and restrictions is available on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov.
"I totally understand there's some inconvenience involved in that, but I think we can all agree at the end of the day that that inconvenience is worth it if there's a prevention mechanism in place to prevent our deer herd from having more positives on the landscape than what we already do," Williams said. "Obviously, we need help from the sporting public to do that."
North Dakota's deer gun season continues through Sunday, Nov. 25. Muzzleloader season begins at noon Friday, Nov. 30 and continues through Sunday, Dec. 16.
More info: gf.nd.gov.