Starting in 2001 and lasting for roughly a decade, North Dakota had unprecedented deer hunting opportunities. For the first time, licenses made available to hunters topped 100,000 and kept climbing. State wildlife managers said without hesitation that these were the good old days of deer hunting.
But there was a caveat, a warning that was easy to ignore at the time because deer hunting was so good. “We told hunters that this wouldn’t last, that the days of hunters carrying multiple deer licenses in their back pockets would eventually end,” said Randy Kreil, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife division chief.
To get to where Game and Fish made available more than 145,000 deer licenses for a six-season stretch beginning in 2004, the answer is simple enough, but also highly unique for this neck of the Northern Plains.
“We got there because we had super habitat conditions on the landscape and more than a decade of moderate to mild winters, which is extraordinary for North Dakota,” Kreil said. “It’s hard to believe, but no less than five years ago we had people demand that we issue doe licenses for $5, or that you had to shoot a doe before shooting a buck, because of the high number of animals on the landscape.”
While it’s impossible to predict what Mother Nature will throw our way, Kreil said wildlife managers saw that more and more habitat was disappearing across the state and that deer numbers would likely follow.
“While we could see this coming from a habitat standpoint, no one would have predicted back-to-back-to-back tough winters,” Kreil said of the trio of difficult winters that were hard on animals statewide, the first of which hit in 2008. “Couple this with the fact that we had been harvesting the doe segment very hard for several years to meet the tolerance levels of landowners, motorists and even hunters, it’s no surprise what followed.
“We might not have been that aggressive in harvesting does if we would have known that three tough winters were coming, but how do you predict that?” Kreil said. “The Department does have some responsibility in this, but we were doing what we thought was best to balance the deer population between what hunters wanted for recreation and what landowners would tolerate.”
By comparison to the decade prior, deer license numbers were drastically decreased to 65,300 in 2012, followed by 59,000 in 2013, the lowest number since 1983. And for the second time in as many years, hunters in 2013 could receive only one license for the gun season.
“We had 44,000 unsuccessful applications this year, and I would bet that most of them would be happy to spend $20 for a doe license, just to be able to go deer hunting,” Kreil said.
In the next three to five years, it’s unknown if the Game and Fish Department will be able to appease a percentage of those unsuccessful applicants.
“If Mother Nature cooperates and gives us moderate to mild winters, and we can somehow stem the tide of habitat loss, we would like to be in the position to meet the demand for hunting opportunities, which would put us right at around 100,000 licenses,” Kreil said. “That’s where we would like the numbers to be.”
The question, however, is can we get there?
“We know that we can’t control the weather, so we’ll always have to deal with that,” Kreil said. “And slowing the loss of habitat from border to border will be a real challenge, too.”
North Dakota, unfortunately, is losing wildlife habitat at a rapid clip.
“If you include the loss of about 2 million Conservation Reserve Program acres, plus the loss of native grassland, the destruction of miles and miles of tree belts, and the influence of energy development in the western part of the state, those are some really big hits to North Dakota’s wildlife habitat,” Kreil said. “Habitat is the foundation for healthy wildlife populations, and we’re losing it.”
North Dakota is at a crossroads in terms of habitat and how much of it people want on the landscape, Kreil said. “As a state, do we want a habitat base that is able to sustain 100,000 deer hunting opportunities per year,” he said. “Or will we settle for wildlife populations and habitat conditions that existed prior to 1985, that gave us far fewer than 100,000 deer licenses.”
Kreil said with just two deer seasons thus far where license numbers have mirrored those in the 1980s, hunters are starting to show some concern, but perhaps not as much as the situation warrants.
“We need hunters to fully understand the potential for it to stay at this level, or possibly get worse,” Kreil said. “We want people to know why it might take several years now just to draw a whitetail doe license.”
Considering there are far more white-tailed deer than any other big game animal in the state, much of the focus when it comes to deer hunting often centers on these animals. However, mule deer numbers in western North Dakota have also been negatively influenced by weather and loss of habitat.
In 2012, in response to poor fawn production and higher adult mortality rates, the Game and Fish Department did not issue any mule deer doe licenses in eight badlands hunting units.
This fall, following some signs of recovery, Game and Fish again decided against issuing any mule deer doe licenses in the same eight units.
According to Department big game biologists, 2013 is the first year since 2007 that the spring mule deer index was higher than the previous year. While the 2013 spring index was 15 percent higher than 2012, it was still 22 percent lower than the long-term average.
Biologists are attributing the population increase to not harvesting antlerless mule deer in the badlands in 2012, coupled with a relatively mild winter over much of the primary mule deer range.
Kreil said the Department hasn’t completely suspended the harvest of antlerless whitetails in some deer hunting units like it’s done for mule deer. Yet, in some units the number of antlerless whitetail licenses has been reduced to a point that the doe harvest is a nonfactor.
“A couple of examples include 3A1 and 2A where we’ve reduced doe licenses to 100 or less,” Kreil said. “So in essence, we’re using that strategy in a few units where whitetail populations are low. In most other units, we’ve reduced doe license numbers dramatically to help rebuild the deer population.”
Future License Distribution Options
With deer populations at levels hunters haven’t seen in decades, Kreil said one of the questions agency officials receive from hunters is, if the deer population remains at low levels, and the demand for deer gun hunting licenses can’t be met, will the Department consider changes to how licenses are distributed?
“People ask if it’s time for a deer management approach that would allow one deer license per person per year, regardless of whether they choose to use a gun, bow or muzzleloader?” Kreil said. “We have been discussing that concept for the last three years.”
For instance, under the current format, anyone who applies in the regular deer gun season license lottery can also apply for a second license in the muzzleloader season lottery, and also purchase an archery license.
No firm proposals are on the table yet, but under any potential future system, Kreil said Game and Fish would like to maintain the statewide either sex/species archery license option for residents. However, that could mean a tradeoff of sorts, where a hunter who opted for a statewide archery license could not also have a deer gun or muzzleloader license.
For the second year in a row in 2013, the Game and Fish Department did not issue any mule deer doe licenses in eight hunting units in the badlands.
At 140,000 deer licenses, Kreil said, the additional deer harvest from archery and muzzleloader hunters was not an overriding factor in setting deer license numbers. At the same time, while not everyone could get a buck license in the unit they preferred, there were more than enough licenses so everyone who wanted to hunt deer could get one.
In the last two years, that situation has changed dramatically. In 2013, North Dakota had about 40,000 applicants in the deer gun lottery who did not get a license.
“If we were to move toward one deer license per hunter,” Kreil said, “it would allow us to offer more licenses in the deer gun lottery, which would mean more people would get a chance to hunt. We still wouldn’t be able to accommodate everyone, but we would improve somewhat the odds for drawing a license.”
In 2004, Game and Fish set its first statewide deer management goals in all hunting units. In 2010, those management goals were re-evaluated and updated, and the statewide goal at time was set for the next five years.
“The next review is coming quickly in 2015 and at that time we will look very closely at all 38 deer management units,” Kreil said. “We will assess deer populations, wildlife habitat, hunter success and demands. From that, we will set goals for the next five years.”
Because deer hunting has a long-standing tradition in North Dakota, and remains a popular activity as one in six residents want to draw a license each fall, Kreil said Department administrators take deer management seriously. “We work really hard to meet the needs of people who want to go deer hunting, while at the same time try to balance the impacts deer have on farmers, ranchers and the general public,” Kreil said.