Survey graphic

Evaluating Days in the Field

Authors and Contributors
Ron Wilson

If you’re a hunter or angler in North Dakota, you’ve likely received, through the mail, a survey from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. For years, the Department has solicited the help of outdoor enthusiasts to accurately and honestly relive their experiences while in the field.

North Dakota OUTDOORS visited with Chad Parent, Department survey coordinator, who addresses the gist of the surveys and their importance in helping the agency manage wildlife in the state.

Q: Why does the Game and Fish Department survey hunters?

A: The short answer is that we send out surveys so that we can count how many animals were harvested. This probably sounds obvious, but to put that into perspective, we need to touch on some concepts from wildlife ecology as it relates to hunting. There is this concept in ecology that suggests each hunting unit in the state has some biologically sustainable amount of harvest that a wildlife population can support without having detrimental effects to the number in the population in future years. Knowing what amount of harvest is “sustainable” requires information on a couple of things, but importantly, the number of animals removed from the population through harvest. We obtain these data by surveying hunters, and from those surveys we can estimate harvest. Our biologists use harvest estimates in conjunction with other data to make decisions about how much and where to distribute harvest in future hunting seasons.

Q: Does Game and Fish send out surveys for all game animals in North Dakota?

A: We work really hard to survey harvests for all of our game animals because it’s an essential piece of information our biologists use to manage North Dakota’s wildlife and fisheries. So, we pretty much survey everything. Currently, we have four surveys that have been sent out to the hunting public, including youth seasons for pheasant, waterfowl and deer, and we also just wrapped up an early Canada goose survey. Looking forward into fall and winter, we have all of our big game surveys for deer, pronghorn, elk and moose, as well as surveys for the fall turkey season. In spring we get a chance to catch our breath because it slows down considerably; but we do have furbearer and our spring turkey surveys.

Q: The surveys don’t take long to fill out. What are some of the questions?

A: We try to be sensitive to a hunter’s time when we draft our surveys because we know their time is valuable. Although we’d love to ask more questions, we’re really only interested in a couple of things: (1) where, and for how many days, did you hunt; (2) were you successful; and if it applies, (3) additional questions about the biology of the game animal you harvested such as its sex and age.

Q: How important is it for these surveys to be filled out accurately?

A: Really important. It’s also really important that successful hunters complete their surveys and get them back to us. The harvest estimates we produce are only going to be as good as the responses on the surveys that we get back from hunters. If there are errors on surveys, there will be more variability around our estimates of harvest, and if a successful hunter doesn’t return their survey, we must assume they were unsuccessful, which results in an under-estimation of the true harvest. All of these sources of error add uncertainty to the process we use to determine the number of licenses in future hunting seasons.

Q: If a hunter goes deer hunting or pheasant hunting and doesn’t harvest any game, should he or she still fill out the survey?

A: Absolutely. Knowing where hunters did not harvest any game provides a number of important insights to our biologists. In fact, the information that we get from unsuccessful hunters – even if they have no harvest to report, or maybe they didn’t make it out at all – is just as important as the information we get from successful hunters. The bottom line is, the more surveys we get back that are filled out accurately, the better our information is about the harvest.

Q: How do you determine who receives a survey in the mail?

A: It kind of depends on the game species and the season. Generally, we identify a random selection of hunters to receive the survey, and we spread the sample proportionally across all of our hunting units so that we can get good information across the state. However, for some of our smaller harvests, where there are fewer than 1,000 hunters, we send surveys to all hunters who successfully drew a license. This ensures that we get enough surveys back to produce good estimates of harvest.

Q: The Game and Fish Department has been conducting surveys in the state for a long time, so this is not something that is new?

A: We really do have a rich tradition in North Dakota of collecting good information from our hunters. For example, we’ve implemented the same, consistent harvest survey for the deer gun season since 1975. That’s more than 40 years of information collected in a consistent manner. These types of data sets are not that common amongst wildlife management agencies across the nation. Having 40 years of information can be really useful, because it allows us to put into perspective some of the short-term trends that we might see.

Q: Any new innovative ways that Game and Fish is going to be sending surveys in the future?

A: The Game and Fish Department wants to start exploring different delivery strategies for an electronic survey. And by “electronic,” we are going to send out the same paper survey that you would typically get in the mail, but you’d fill it out online using your computer or smartphone. What this will hopefully do is make it easier for hunters to complete their surveys. If it’s easier to fill out a survey, we anticipate getting more surveys back, which means better estimates of harvest. Hunters should be on the lookout for these special surveys starting this winter. They will come in the form of either an email, or a standard paper survey, with a special weblink to complete the survey online.