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2013 Hunting Outlook - Big Game

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The Game and Fish made available 59,500 licenses for the 2013 deer hunting season, 5,800 fewer than 2012. The regular deer gun season opens on November 8 and closes November 24.

White-tailed Deer

Archery Opens: Aug. 30

Archery Closes: Jan. 5, 2014

Regular Gun Season Opens: Nov. 8

Regular Gun Season Closes: Nov. 24

Muzzleloader Opens: Nov. 29

Muzzleloader Closes: Dec.15


It is good to periodically stop and glance back at where we’ve been, and take a long look at where we’re going.

With a series of relatively mild winters from 1998 through 2008, the Game and Fish Department struggled to keep deer numbers within the tolerance levels of landowners. Since 2004, when the first statewide management goals were set in all units, antlerless license numbers were systematically and steadily increased. In 2010, deer management goals were re-evaluated and updated for each hunting unit in the state. The statewide goal at that time was set for the next five years at 124,800 deer licenses.

Starting in November 2008 and running through April 2011, North Dakota hosted three “real winters” characterized by early and persistent snow cover, coupled with cold temperatures. The Department continued to aggressively issue antlerless deer licenses, finally reaching management goals for most of the state by spring 2011. During fall 2011, a severe epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreak killed a significant number of white-tailed deer in the western portion of the state.

Winter 2012 was moderate in much of the state, followed by another hard winter in 2013 throughout the Red River Valley and northern tier hunting units along the Canadian border.

Recent years have brought dramatic changes for wildlife habitat throughout the state, including loss of CRP, wetland drainage, habitat fragmentation, removal of tree rows and abandoned farmsteads.

As such, Game and Fish allocated 59,500 licenses for the 2013 deer hunting season, 5,800 fewer than 2012 and the lowest number since 1983. Hunters can receive only one license for the gun season.

After a significant reduction in gun licenses in 2012, harvest and survey data revealed that deer populations are still below management objectives in most units. Statewide hunter success in 2012 was 63 percent, which was better than 2011 (52 percent), but still lower than the goal of 70 percent.

Winter aerial surveys showed that deer were down from 2011 levels in units 3A1, 1, 2K1, 2K2, 2C, 2D and 2B. Although deer are still below the management objective in 2A, 2F1 and 2F2, winter aerial surveys showed that numbers were slightly above levels recorded in 2011 (2F1 and 2F2) or 2012 (2A).

Deer numbers overall remain below objectives due to prolonged effects of severe winters during 2008-10, which not only increased adult mortality, but also reduced fawn production. The extreme winter conditions followed nearly a decade of aggressive deer management that featured large numbers of antlerless licenses in most units.

Winter 2012-13 was severe in the northern and eastern portions of the state, which will slow population recovery in those areas. Further loss of high quality deer habitat statewide will also limit potential for population recovery.

Currently, all hunting units in the state are below management goals set in 2010, except in 3E2, 3F1, 3F2 and 4F. Fewer licenses in 2013 is necessary to allow deer populations to increase toward management goals.

Deer hunting opportunities in 2013 include:

  • Total licenses available for the 2013 regular season are 59,500, 5,800 fewer than 2012. Antlered licenses were reduced by 1,850 and antlerless licenses were reduced by 3,950.
  • 47 percent of the total reduction in licenses comes from the Red River Valley management region (2A, 2B and 2C) with nearly 25 percent coming from 2C alone.
  • Increased white-tailed buck licenses by 550 in the southwestern portion of the state due to improved hunter success rate.
  • 1,166 muzzleloader licenses are available in 2013, 583 antlered and 583 antlerless white-tailed deer licenses, a reduction of 116 muzzleloader licenses from 2012.
  • 180 nonresident any-deer archery licenses are available for 2013, 502 fewer than in 2012. The number of nonresident any-deer archery licenses will further decline to 172 in 2014.
  • All resident and nonresident deer archery licenses will be issued via electronic means only, through the Department’s Bismarck office, Game and Fish website at; by calling (800) 406-6409; or at license vendors participating in the Game and Fish online licensing system. Currently, select vendors in more than 20 counties are part of the Game and Fish system.

Bill Jensen, Big Game Management Biologist, Bismarck

One of the most coveted licenses in North Dakota is a mule deer buck license in the badlands. Mule deer hunting opportunities this fall will be similar to 2012, with 1,150 antlered mule deer licenses available, 50 fewer than last year.

Mule Deer

Archery Opens: Aug. 30

Archery Closes: Jan. 5, 2014

Regular Gun Season Opens: Nov. 8

Regular Gun Season Closes: Nov. 24


Mule deer in North Dakota’s badlands are showing signs of recovery following record low fawn production after the severe winters of 2008-10, when deer numbers declined by nearly 50 percent from 2007.

This is the first year since 2007 that the spring mule deer index was higher than the previous year. The 2013 spring index was 15 percent higher than 2012, but still 22 percent lower than the long-term average. The population increase can be attributed to not harvesting antlerless mule deer in the badlands during the 2012 hunting season, and a relatively mild winter over much of the primary mule deer range.

Although fawn production was not great in 2012, mild winter conditions across much of the core mule deer range led to good adult and fawn winter survival. Mule deer in core badlands habitat, which encompasses hunting units 4B, 4C, 4D, and 4E, increased 23-30 percent from 2012. While this year’s population increase is encouraging, there are many challenges facing the future population growth in the badlands. Encroachment of juniper in mule deer habitat, direct and indirect habitat loss due to energy development, predators and weather are all challenges facing future population recovery.

Mule deer hunting opportunities this fall will be similar to 2012, with 1,150 antlered mule deer licenses available, 50 fewer than last year. Game and Fish is not issuing any antlerless mule deer licenses once again in hunting units 3B1, 3B2, 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E and 4F.

With fewer mule deer licenses, the chances of drawing a license in 2013 were low, but for those lucky few, it should result in a high-quality hunt due to less crowded hunting conditions similar to 2012. 

Bruce Stillings, Big Game Management Supervisor, Dickinson


For season details, refer to the Game and Fish Department website,, or the 2013 bighorn sheep, elk and moose hunting guide.

Moose continue to fare well in what is considered nontraditional habitat for this species, and the phenomenon of prairie moose continues with the best densities found in northwestern North Dakota.

Winter aerial surveys indicate that densities remain low in traditional habitat in northeastern and north central North Dakota. Moose unit M1C, located in the Pembina Hills region, will remain closed this year. Moose unit M4, which encompasses the Turtle Mountains, is also closed this fall due to a low hunter success rate (29 percent) last year, and low moose numbers observed during aerial surveys. 

Game and Fish has made a few changes to the moose hunting season format this fall.

In years past the moose rifle season has opened about the same time as the peak of the moose rut, but this year the rifle opener was moved back one week to alleviate some of the hunting pressure during the rut.

This came about because biologists have found evidence of open or late-bred cows, in addition to other documentation of late-born moose calves.

Also, with declining moose numbers across much of the state, with the exception of the northwest, no any-antlerless licenses were issued, which takes the pressure off cows as most moose hunters with a once-in-a-lifetime tag focus on bulls.

Game and Fish allocated 111 moose licenses for North Dakota’s 2013 season, down from 143 licenses last year. The reduction in overall license numbers is primarily related to the closure of hunting unit M4, and slight reductions in licenses in M9 and M10 due to the shift to all any-moose licenses.

Jason Smith, Big Game Management Biologist, Jamestown


For season details, refer to the Game and Fish Department website,, or the 2013 bighorn sheep, elk and moose hunting guide.

A successful, coordinated volunteer herd reduction effort in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2010-11 has reduced the number of elk in southwestern North Dakota.

North Dakota’s 2013 elk season features 261 licenses, down from 301 licenses last year. Season prospects, however, are good, with anticipated hunter success similar to last year.

Elk numbers in southwestern North Dakota are low due to a successful, coordinated volunteer herd reduction effort in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2010-11. Units E3 and E4 will have 60 any-elk licenses this season, compared to 100 in 2012. In units E1 and E2, elk numbers are stable and the number of licenses issued is the same as last year.

The boundary of elk unit E1 in the northeast has been expanded to encompass an increasing elk herd in the Turtle Mountain area.

Making landowner contacts and preseason scouting prior to the season opener is recommended and is an essential component to a successful hunt this fall.


Jason Smith

Bighorn Sheep

For season details, refer to the Game and Fish Department website,, or the 2013 bighorn sheep, elk and moose hunting guide.

North Dakota’s bighorn sheep continue to show resiliency in a changing landscape, as the 2012 population survey revealed a minimum of 297 animals, the second highest on record and 5 percent above the 2011 count. The population in the northern badlands set a new record, but the southern population declined slightly.

Biologists counted 87 rams, 156 ewes, and a record 54 lambs. The lamb recruitment rate was also a record 38 percent, and almost all lambs observed during the summer survey survived winter. A relatively mild winter last year bodes well for further population increases.

The 2012 survey does not include approximately 30 bighorn sheep that inhabit the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Despite an encouraging count in 2012, the male segment of the population, and the number of mature rams, remains below objectives. Consequently, four licenses were issued in 2013, the same as 2012. However, the future looks promising as a large number of young rams were observed.

Due to an increasing number of roadkill mortalities on U.S. Highway 85 near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Game and Fish and National Park Service personnel collaborated to translocate 14 bighorn sheep from that area to a more secluded site in the badlands. Sixteen animals were also translocated from the same area in 2010.

Brett Wiedmann, Big Game Management Biologist, Dickinson


North Dakota’s pronghorn population is finally growing after five years of steady decline. However, pronghorn numbers are still below population objectives and not high enough to warrant a hunting season.

Summer survey results revealed the statewide population is 5,400 pronghorn, 49 percent higher than 2012, but still 62 percent below 2008, the last year a hunting season was held. Department big game biologists expected to see a population increase due to another year without a hunting season and a mild winter across much of our pronghorn range, which led to high adult and fawn survival.

This year, fawn production was average to below average in all management regions. Another mild to average winter in 2013 should encourage future population growth, but challenges remain with pronghorn habitat in the west.

Fragmentation of habitat due to energy development and loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres in the secondary range are challenges facing future pronghorn recovery in the state.

Biologists will continue to monitor pronghorn numbers in the future, and will reopen the season when the population returns to a level capable of withstanding a harvest. 

The 2013 pronghorn season will be closed to both gun and archery hunters. Applicants who have accumulated preference points will maintain their current points.

Bruce Stillings