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Hunter on prairie

2020 Hunting Season Outlook

Authors and Contributors




It was Friday, March 13. Not a good day if you buy into the superstition linked to the day, or grew up in the 1980s and watched any of the “Friday the 13th” movies and understand how things can go south in a hurry.

My wife, son and I were headed to a youth wrestling tournament in Linton when my phone rang about 10 miles north of town.

Tournament canceled, the caller said.

For my son, it was pure devastation. Tears were shed as we turned around and headed back home. After hearing about several COVID-related event cancellations, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise that the tournament was shut down, but a certain sign that things weren’t going to be the same for quite a while, even in North Dakota.

Fast forward to mid-August as I write this, and I believe we all can agree that the last several months have been different. But with fall quickly approaching and all our hunting seasons set, we’ve had an opportunity to reflect on Game and Fish Department spring and summer work activities. And, from the outside looking in, I don’t think there was much to notice.

The Department’s wildlife division is responsible for many tasks, but is commonly known for collecting species information, which help determine hunting season proclamations, provide wildlife habitat on wildlife management areas across the state, and work closely with private landowners to help open up additional hunting opportunities through our popular Private Land Open To Sportsmen program.

All these duties are carried out by dedicated staff who take a lot of pride in what they do and have expectations of completion. These are duties that we consider normal, but following discussions with agencies in other states, we found that this year we were in the minority when it came to working in the field.

So, before reading about the 2020 hunting season outlook, I thought it was important to highlight the Department staff effort it took to gather this information under challenging circumstances.

It didn’t come without some inconveniences, extra safety measures and innovation. But with our mission in mind, it was worth the additional effort to provide the public with as many outdoor opportunities as possible in a year where outdoor recreation will continue to provide a valuable outlet for many.

Our notable big game surveys in spring and summer are for mule deer, pronghorn and bighorn sheep. The spring mule deer survey in western North Dakota usually takes place in early to mid-April. This year was no exception, but several adjustments were made to ensure a safe environment for staff and survey pilots.

Typically, these surveys consist of a weeklong stay at various hotels and a lot of camaraderie with all involved. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case this year. Instead of hotel stays, staff overnighted in Department camper trailers at our Dickinson district office. The survey crew was smaller than typical, but with additional flying days the survey was completed without a misstep.

Arrangements, precautions and results of the summer pronghorn survey was much the same. The bighorn survey was the last one of summer and has a direct influence on how many lucky hunters will receive a call in early September telling them that they drew a coveted license.

The April portion of the sage grouse translocation project in southwestern North Dakota was put on hold by Wyoming Game and Fish this year due to COVID-19, but the June portion was a go and our staff successfully trapped and released hens and chicks in North Dakota in a continuing effort to bolster the grouse population.

All pheasant and sharp-tailed grouse surveys were conducted in traditional fashion because data is collected by individuals, not by groups. In fact, these peaceful, early morning surveys could easily be the definition of social distancing.

North Dakota conducts two important wetland and waterfowl surveys in May and July. The May survey has been conducted every year since 1948 and consists of a lot of miles, counting and classifying waterfowl, in normal years, with at least two individuals in a vehicle. The crews this year adjusted to only one individual per vehicle and eliminated any hotel stays. While it made for some long days, both surveys were successfully completed, with what looks to be a promising year for resident ducks and geese, while continuing to collect annual data for important trend information.

Department private land biologists adjusted accordingly by replacing the windshield tours with farmers and ranchers, to driveway discussions and phone conversations. The March through August timeframe for biologists consists of contract renewals, site visits, new contract writing, field coordination, and various other duties, many of which usually consist of face-to-face interaction. Our North Dakota culture prefers the in-person meet and greet, but under the circumstances, Game and Fish staff improvised. When the dust settled, more PLOTS acres were made available to hunters than in 2019.

The Department’s wildlife resource management section is charged with managing the state’s wildlife management areas across North Dakota. District staff took various precautions to ensure the safe working environment for themselves and co-workers. Food plots were planted, grass was seeded, trees were planted, noxious weeds were sprayed, grazing and haying operations were conducted in accordance with area management plans, and all our managed shooting ranges remained open for public use. All of these outdoor public areas remained open, and staff took a lot of pride in making that happen.

We hope that you will remain safe and healthy and that North Dakota’s outdoors provide you with a sense of normalcy in what is currently an unusual time.

JEB WILLIAMS is the Game and Fish Department’s wildlife division chief.

Small Game, Waterfowl and Furbearer - General Information

North Dakota’s 2020 small game, waterfowl and furbearer regulations and most season structures are similar to last year.

Some reminders:

  • Opening day for ducks, geese, coots and mergansers for North Dakota residents is Sept. 26. Nonresidents may begin hunting waterfowl in North Dakota Oct. 3.
  • The daily limit on scaup is reduced from three to one.
  • The prairie chicken and sage grouse seasons will remain closed due to low populations.
  • In accordance with state law, nonresidents are not allowed to hunt on Game and Fish Department wildlife management areas or Private Land Open To Sportsmen areas from Oct. 10-16.
  • Veterans and members of the Armed Forces (including National Guard and Reserves) on active duty, who possess a resident hunting license, may hunt waterfowl Sept. 19-20.

Hunters and trappers can find the North Dakota 2020-21 Hunting and Trapping Guide, which includes upland game, migratory game bird and furbearer hunting/trapping regulations and other information, by visiting the state Game and Fish Department’s website, Printed guides are available at vendor locations.

Pheasant in snow

Upland and Small Game

--- Ring-necked Pheasants ---
Opens: Oct. 10
Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Daily Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

Pheasants in North Dakota, for the most part, were greeted with a much milder winter in most of the state in 2020 compared to 2019. The only portion of the state that had unfavorable conditions was in the southeast, where above average snowfall and below average temperatures were the rule for most of winter.

Results of the spring crowing count survey showed higher numbers of breeding roosters throughout most of the traditional pheasant range. The number of roosters heard calling was up anywhere from 1-18% throughout North Dakota’s good pheasant range. This was not a surprise, as last summer’s reproduction led to a slight increase in the late summer roadside counts.

Cover for nesting hens was above average in spring due to a wet fall and residual cover. Hen pheasants should have been in good shape where the winter weather was mild, which may have translated into larger clutches of eggs.

At the time of this writing, Game and Fish biologists were still conducting late summer roadside brood counts, but preliminary numbers indicate hunters will see a comparable number of birds this fall to 2019.

While most of the state should have good production, hunters will need to be mobile and willing to move to different locations to find optimal hunting opportunities. The southwestern and northwestern parts of the state are expected to provide the best fall hunting opportunities.

Rodney Gross, Upland Game Management Biologist, Bismarck

--- Youth Pheasant ---
(For legally licensed residents and nonresidents ages 15 and younger.)
Opens: Oct. 3
Closes: Oct. 4
Daily limit: 3
Possession limit: 6
Shooting hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

--- Wild Turkeys ---
Opens: Oct. 10
Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

The turkey population in many of North Dakota’s hunting units has been higher than normal the past few years due to increased production in the western half of the state. Last year, conditions were ideal for a successful turkey hatch, and Department surveys showed that.

Turkey production was good last spring from an increasing breeding population, so fall numbers were higher in parts of the state.

The eastern part of the state has seen decreasing numbers of birds the last few years in response to the loss of quality turkey habitat. Early reports from brood surveys indicate a slight decrease in the number of turkey broods on the ground in the west.

The Department increased fall wild turkey licenses slightly in an attempt to give hunters more opportunities in areas where turkey numbers are above management goals. It is expected that the central and west-central parts of the state along river corridors will provide some of the better turkey hunting opportunities in the state this fall.

Rodney Gross

--- Ruffed Grouse ---
Opens: Sept. 12
Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Daily Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

Ruffed grouse populations occur in isolated pockets, namely the Turtle Mountains in the north central part of the state and in the Pembina Hills in the northeast. They are strongly associated with aspen forests with multi-aged stands of trees.

In 2020 spring drumming counts, increases in the ruffed grouse indexes were observed, particularly in the Pembina Hills where the number of ruffed grouse drumming heard per stop was up for the second year in a row.

Once again, for anyone looking to key in on ruffed grouse, it’s recommended to look for areas with quaking aspen stands that provide areas of young, densely packed shoots mixed with areas of large mature trees.

Jesse Kolar, Upland Game Management Supervisor, Dickinson

--- Sharp-tailed Grouse ---
Opens: Sept. 12
Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Daily Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

Sharp-tailed grouse harvest in 2019 finally started to rebound after lows the past three years. Interestingly, much of the rebound occurred in the prairie Coteau and Prairie Pothole regions and remained low in the badlands. Hunters who found sharptails in the central regions of the state reported seeing larger coveys, like what was observed in 2019 during late summer roadside counts.

Game and Fish Department spring counts, which use counts of males at displaying grounds as a population index, indicated sharptails increased by roughly 20% across the state. However, since most hunters end up harvesting mostly juvenile birds, it’s important to focus on reproduction for a fall forecast. Good reproduction requires both good nesting and brood-rearing success.

Nesting conditions were good for 2020 across most of North Dakota, however, the far eastern portion of the state and parts of the southeast were saturated from the wet fall in 2019. This spring was only the second spring since the drought of 2017 where we had tall residual vegetation structure and promising nesting conditions. Late winter temperatures and snowfall were mild, particularly farther west. Nesting conditions remained good over the peak nesting period (May-July). However, hot, dry weather, like what the western portion of the state experienced in June, may have inhibited egg-laying by hens.

Brood-rearing conditions this year were also good with warm, dry weather in June and only a few severe hailstorms. Anecdotal reports indicated that insect densities were higher this year than the past two, which is also important as grouse chicks rely on insects for protein as they grow.

So far, during the first half of the Department’s late summer roadside counts (brood surveys), biologists observed increases in the number of grouse broods observed per 100 miles, the number of chicks per brood, and the overall number of grouse per 100 miles. The largest increases were in the southwest, but keep in mind that area had the lowest rebound last year.

Hunters across the state should find higher numbers of sharptails than what they saw the past three years. Hunters should be aware of two areas closed to sharptail hunting: an area west of Grand Forks and an area around the Sheyenne National Grasslands. (Maps of areas closed to sharptail hunting are found in the North Dakota 2020-21 Hunting and Trapping Guide on the Department’s website at

Once again, we ask grouse and partridge hunters to send in wings from harvested birds to help in the effort to analyze production for 2020. The hope is for additional submissions from hunters who have not submitted wings in the past.

Hunters can request prepaid wing envelopes here.

Jesse Kolar

--- Hungarian Partridge ---
Opens: Sept. 12
Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Daily Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 12
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, partridge populations were plentiful in North Dakota, but as farming practices changed and weather patterns shifted from dry to a predominately wet cycle, partridge populations responded negatively.

However, last year hunters saw a welcomed increase in the partridge population and early indications are similar this year. Hunters will most likely see increased numbers of partridge in the field compared to last year due to improved reproduction. Biologists have observed larger partridge broods this year compared to last summer. Department biologists will continue to observe broods during late summer roadside counts and results will be available in early September.

Partridge respond favorably to drier conditions and it’s hopeful that the population continues to rebound from the dryer than average summer. Partridge have become an opportunistic bird that is harvested while hunting either sharp-tailed grouse or pheasants, so keep a look out for areas such as abandoned farmsteads and native prairie that is on the edge of small grain crops. Pockets of decent hunting may be found in these areas, but hunters will need to spend some time in the mornings scouting out potential areas.

Rodney Gross

--- Tree Squirrels ---
Opens: Sept. 12
Closes: Feb. 28, 2021
Daily Limit: 4
Possession Limit: 12
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

Tree squirrels may be taken statewide with firearms loaded with shot, rimfire rifles, or with bows and arrows legal for taking upland game.

Whtie-tailed deer jumping fence

Big Game

--- White-tailed Deer ---
Archery Opens: Sep. 4
Archery Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Regular Gun Season Opens: Nov. 6
Regular Gun Season Closes: Nov. 22
Muzzleloader Opens: Nov. 27
Muzzleloader Closes: Dec. 13

Game and Fish made available 69,050 licenses for the 2020 hunting season, an increase of 3,550 from 2019.

Population and harvest data indicate the state’s deer population is stable to increasing, but still below management goals in most eastern hunting units. Consequently, there was a moderate increase in deer licenses allocated in 2020 to increase hunting opportunities while continuing to encourage population growth. The statewide gun hunter success rate in 2019 was 64%, which was the same as 2018, but below the Department goal of 70%.

Because deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease in hunting units 3A1 and 3B1, deer management strategies were altered in those and surrounding units. The goal is to minimize the CWD prevalence rate and reduce the spread of the disease outside those two units. Therefore, a more aggressive harvest strategy remains in the northwestern part of the state.

High quality deer habitat is not as abundant as in the past, which has limited the potential for population recovery. For example, deer numbers in hunting units 2E and 2C have responded slower to more favorable winter weather conditions and reduced harvest, due in part to these hunting units having lost approximately 60% of CRP grass cover and nearly 400 acres of trees.

Winter aerial surveys were generally poor. Biologists surveyed four (2H, 2F2, 2A and 2B) of 32 hunting units in 2020. Large amounts of standing corn made observing deer more difficult during winter aerial surveys. Surveys indicated stable white-tailed deer numbers in those units. In terms of severity, winter 2019-20 was moderate to mild, except for the region south of Interstate 94 and east of U.S. Highway 281.

The 2020 badlands mule deer spring index increased by 7% from 2019. Mule deer in the badlands have increased since winters of 2008-10 to a level within management objectives. A conservative management approach will continue for 2020, with the same number of licenses as 2019.

Landowners interested in having more antlerless deer harvested are encouraged to call the Game and Fish at 701-328-6300.

A summary of deer licenses for 2020:

  • Any-antlered licenses increased by 1,500.
  • Any-antlerless licenses increased by 1,600.
  • Antlered white-tailed deer licenses increased by 250.
  • Antlerless white-tailed deer licenses increased by 200.
  • Antlered and antlerless mule deer licenses remained the same.
  • 1,276 muzzleloader licenses available in 2020 – 638 antlered white-tailed deer licenses and 638 antlerless white-tailed deer licenses. This is an increase of 70 muzzleloader licenses from 2019.
  • 305 “I” licenses available for the youth deer hunting season, the same as 2019. The licenses are limited in number for units 3B1, 3B2 and 4A-4F, and are valid for any deer. There are unlimited “H” youth deer hunting licenses that are valid for any deer statewide, except mule deer in the above restricted units.
  • 780 nonresident any-deer archery licenses available in 2020, an increase of 173 from 2019. The number of nonresident any-deer archery licenses will remain at 780 in 2021.

An experimental bow season for private land in Burleigh and Morton counties located adjacent to Bismarck and Mandan was implemented to address high white-tailed deer numbers in the Missouri River bottoms.

Bill Jensen, Big Game Management Biologist, Bismarck

--- Mule Deer ---
Archery Opens: Sep. 4
Archery Closes: Jan. 3, 2021
Regular Gun Season Opens: Nov. 6
Regular Gun Season Closes: Nov. 22

Mule deer in North Dakota’s badlands continue to show signs of recovery following the severe winters of 2008-2010, which resulted in deer numbers declining by nearly 50% since 2007.

The 2020 spring index was 7% higher than 2019, and 22% above the long-term average. The mule deer population increase can be attributed to prohibiting the harvest of antlerless mule deer in the badlands during the 2012-16 hunting seasons, more moderate winter conditions, and improved fawn production in 2013-19. Fawn production was highest in 2014 and 2016 with fawn-to-doe ratios of 95 and 90 fawns per 100 does, respectively.

A stable to increasing mule deer population will mean good hunting opportunities again this fall. There were 3,050 antlered licenses and 2,150 antlerless licenses available in 2020, the same as 2019. A mule deer buck license remains one of the most difficult licenses to draw, but for those lucky hunters, it should result in a high-quality hunt. Hunter success for mule deer buck hunters was 79% in 2019.

While another year of a stable to increasing population is encouraging, mule deer in the badlands face many challenges, such as encroachment of juniper in mule deer habitat, direct and indirect habitat loss due to oil development, predators and weather conditions.

Bruce Stillings, Big Game Management Supervisor, Dickinson

--- Pronghorn ---
Archery Only Opens: Sept. 4
Archery Only Closes: Sept. 27
Gun/Archery Season Opens: Oct. 2
Gun/Archery Season Closes: Oct. 18

North Dakota hunters will have more pronghorn hunting opportunities in 2020 due to a slight population increase.

Biologists conducted aerial surveys in early July and found that the number of pronghorn in the state increased by 6% from last year.

The pronghorn population increased to just over 10,400 animals, which is the highest estimate since 2009. The population has been slowly recovering since 2013 following the severe winters of 2008-10, which resulted in numbers declining by 75%. A combination of milder winter conditions since 2010-11, closed seasons from 2010-13, and improved fawn production and survival since 2013 have resulted in the population reaching a level that is able to support a higher harvest this fall.

In 2020, 1,790 licenses were allocated, or 460 more than 2019. Fifteen hunting units – 1A, 1D, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 4A, 4C, 5A, 6A, 7A, 8A, 10A, 11A, and 13A – will be open this fall, three more than 2019. Units 8A and 11A will be opened for the first time since 2009, while 13A includes an area not open to hunting since 1993.

Pronghorn have also increased to a level in hunting units 1A, 2A, 4A, 5A, 6A, 7A and 11A where doe/fawn licenses will be issued to address areas of high pronghorn density and provide additional hunting opportunities.

Lottery licenses can be used during the archery season (Sept. 4-27) with archery equipment or during the rifle season (Oct. 2-18) using legal firearm or archery equipment for those who do not hunt or harvest an animal during the archery season.

Last year’s season was very successful with 1,167 hunters harvesting 859 pronghorn for a success rate of 74%.

Bruce Stillings

--- Bighorn Sheep ---

Bighorn Sheep Season Details

The Department’s spring bighorn sheep survey, completed by recounting lambs in March, revealed a minimum of 290 bighorn sheep in western North Dakota, up 2% from 2018 and 3% above the five-year average.

Altogether, biologists counted 77 rams, 162 ewes and 51 lambs. Not included are approximately 30 bighorn sheep in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and 30 bighorns recently translocated to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

The increase in the 2019 count reflects lessening effects of bacterial pneumonia detected in 2014. The northern badlands population increased 12% from 2018 and was the highest count on record. The southern badlands population declined again to the lowest level since 1999.

The total count of adult rams unfortunately declined for a fourth consecutive year in 2019, but adult ewes remained near record numbers. Most encouraging was the significant increase in the lamb count and recruitment rate following record lows in 2016 and 2017.

Game and Fish Department biologists count and classify all bighorn sheep in late summer, and then recount lambs the following March, as they approach one year of age, to determine recruitment.

Fortunately, annual survival rates of adult bighorns are very high and similar to those prior to the die-off, and lamb survival continues to improve, which could indicate the population is becoming somewhat resilient to the deadly pathogens first observed in 2014. The pathogen, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, has not been detected the last two years in most of the northern herds via annual disease testing and none are currently showing symptoms of pneumonia.

However, the next few years will be important in determining if the state’s population shows signs of recovering from the disease outbreak, or if the pathogens are likely to persist and cause a long-term population decline.

A bighorn sheep hunting season is scheduled for 2020. The status of the bighorn sheep season was determined after the summer population survey was completed.

Game and Fish issued five licenses in 2019 and all hunters were successful in harvesting a ram.

Brett Wiedmann, Big Game Management Biologist, Dickinson

--- Moose ---

Moose Season Details

After several years of increasing and record-setting moose licenses, the number of once-in-a-lifetime licenses was reduced slightly for 2020. The decrease was related to reduced hunter success in moose hunting unit M6.

The majority of licenses again come primarily from the northwest region of the state in moose management units M9, M10 and M11. Moose continue to do well in northwestern North Dakota, but numbers remain low in historical hunting units in the Turtle Mountains, Pembina Hills and along the Red River corridor.

Moose unit M1C, located in the Pembina Hills region, has been closed since 2006 and will remain closed again this year. Moose unit M4, which encompasses the Turtle Mountains, was closed in 2013 and will also remain closed this fall.

Game and Fish issued 474 licenses for 2020, down from 479 licenses in 2019. Expectations for the season are high as success for moose historically runs above 90%.

Jason Smith, Big Game Management Biologist, Jamestown

--- Elk ---

Elk Season Details

North Dakota’s 2020 elk season features 523 licenses, an increase from 2019 and the highest number of elk licenses issued since 2010.

The primary increase in licenses was for elk unit E3 in western North Dakota. This was in response to an increasing elk population in the area and landowner tolerance concerns.

The elk season outlook for 2020 is expected to be good with success similar to previous years.

As always, making landowner contacts and preseason scouting prior to the season opener is recommended and is an essential component to a successful hunt.

Jason Smith

Sandhill cranes in a harvested crop field

Migratory Birds

--- Ducks and Geese ---

Much improved wetland conditions, along with increased numbers of waterfowl responding to those conditions, were found during the Game and Fish Department’s 73rd annual breeding duck survey. Much of the state had good to excellent conditions for breeding ducks in spring and breeding habitats generally held up during the breeding season.

The 2020 May water index was the sixth highest on record, up 65% from 2019, and 71% above the 1948-2019 average. Wetland conditions in May ranged from fair to excellent across the state.

This year’s breeding duck index was the 13th highest on record, up 18% from last year, and 64% above the long-term average. The state’s estimated breeding population of ducks (3.98 million) is the highest index since 2014.

With the exception of redheads, all of North Dakota’s primary breeding duck species had indices at or above what was observed in 2019. Mallards were basically unchanged from their 2019 estimate and represented their 18th highest count on record. Green-winged teal and blue-winged teal were up 66% and 58%, respectively. Ruddy ducks had another big population increase from last year and are up 87%. Changes in estimates of all other duck species ranged from a 2% decline for pintails to a 40% increase for scaup.

All species are above their long-term average, with the exception of pintails being 5% below their 72-year average. Green-winged teal came in at a record high index and are 249% above their 1948-2019 average. Other important species like gadwall (up 43%); canvasbacks (up 54%); wigeon (up 68%); redheads (up 72%); scaup (up 85%); mallards (up 84%); shovelers (up 95% ); and ruddy ducks (up 142%) are above the long-term average.

The number of broods observed during the Department’s July brood survey was similar to last year’s count, and 52% above the 1965-2019 average. The average brood size was 6.75 ducklings, nearly identical to last year’s estimate. Following the May survey, North Dakota’s landscape began to quickly dry up as drought crept across western and northern portions of the state. However, average to above average rainfall began in late June and continued into mid-July in nearly all important duck producing regions. This needed rainfall maintained excellent wetland conditions farther east and slowed drying in smaller seasonal wetland basins in many breeding areas.

July wetland counts were up 11% from 2019, and 49% above the long-term average. Despite abundant rain in June, precipitation has been somewhat limited in many areas of the state following unprecedented precipitation last fall. Wetland conditions were stable to declining across most of the state, with the exception of the northeast region and some smaller, isolated areas. Generally, numbers and conditions of wetlands were fair to good, but very wet in the northeast part of the state, starkly contrasting areas in the north central and central parts of the state that continue to show some drying.

The fall flight forecast of ducks from North Dakota is up 9% from last year and is the 13th highest fall flight on record.

Numbers of resident Canada geese, Western Prairie Canada geese and arctic nesting Tallgrass Prairie Canada geese, snow geese and Ross’s geese all remain high. Production of Canada geese in the state was quite high this year; estimates from arctic breeding areas are not available due to pandemic related travel restrictions.

North Dakota’s waterfowl hunting seasons are always influenced by fall weather, and weather patterns from early to late seasons usually are not consistent from year to year. By producing a lot of birds locally, hunters aren’t as dependent on good migration weather to bring birds from Canada in a timely manner.

Abundant small wetlands in good condition, coupled with abundant, secure nesting cover in the uplands, drives duck production. Hunting opportunities for waterfowl should be good this season based on duck production in North Dakota. However, prairie Canada was fairly dry again this spring and might limit the size of the fall flight of ducks that migrate through the state.

Mike Szymanski, Migratory Game Bird Management Supervisor, Bismarck

--- Youth Waterfowl Season ---

(For legally licensed residents and nonresidents ages 15 and younger.)

Opens: Sept. 19
Closes: Sept. 20
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Daily Limit: Ducks and geese – same as regular season.

--- Special Veteran and Active Military Waterfowl Season ---

(For legally licensed veterans and members of the Armed Forces on active duty, including members of the National Guard and Reserves on active duty, other than for training.)

Opens: Sept. 19
Closes: Sept. 20
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Daily Limit: Ducks and geese – same as regular season (does not include bonus blue-winged teal).

--- Early Canada Goose Hunting ---
Opens: Aug. 15 (statewide)
Closes: Sept. 7 (Missouri River Canada Goose Zone), Sept. 15 (Western Canada Goose Zone), Sept. 22 (Eastern Canada Goose Zone)
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Daily Limit: 15
Possession Limit: 45

--- Canada Geese Regular Season ---
Opens: Sept. 26 (residents only), Oct. 3 (nonresidents)
Closes: Jan. 1 (Missouri River Canada Goose Zone), Dec. 24 (Western Canada Goose Zone), Dec. 19 (Eastern Canada Goose Zone)
Daily Limit: 5 (Missouri River zone), 8 (all other zones)
Possession Limit: 15 (Missouri River zone), 24 (all other zones)

--- White-fronted Geese (Statewide) ---
Opens: Sept. 26 (residents only), Oct. 3 (nonresidents)
Closes: Dec. 6
Daily Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 9

--- Light (Snow) Geese (Statewide) ---
Opens: Sept. 26 (residents only), Oct. 3 (nonresidents)
Closes: Jan. 1
Daily Limit: 50, no possession limit
Shooting Hours for all Geese: Half-hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. each day through Oct. 31. Starting Nov. 1, shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to 2 p.m. each day.

Exception: Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset on all Saturdays and Wednesdays through the end of each season. Starting Nov. 29, all-day hunting is also allowed on Sundays through the end of each season.

--- Regular Duck Season ---

Low Plains Unit

Opens: Sept. 26 (residents only), Oct. 3 (nonresidents)
Closes: Dec. 6
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

High Plains Unit

Opens: Sept. 26 (residents only), Oct. 3 (nonresidents)
Closes: Dec. 6
Opens: Dec. 12
Closes: Jan. 3
Shooting-hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Daily Limit: Six ducks, which may include no more than five mallards (two of which may be hens), one pintail, two redheads, two canvasbacks, one scaup and three wood ducks. In addition to the daily bag limit of ducks, an additional two blue-winged teal may be taken from Sept. 26 through Oct. 11.
Possession Limit: Three times the daily limit.


--- Sandhill Cranes ---
Opens: Zone 1 and 2: Sept. 19
Closes: Zone 1 and 2: Nov. 15
Daily Limit Zone 1: 3
Daily Limit Zone 2: 2
Possession Limit Zone 1: 9
Possession Limit Zone 2: 6
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. daily through Oct. 31; to 2 p.m. Nov. 1 until end of season.

The spring survey for Mid-continent Sandhill Cranes in the central Platte River valley in Nebraska was canceled this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Although no annual survey information is available for 2020, the three-year average population index used for guiding hunting season regulations has been stable to slightly increasing for several years.

In addition, the canceled 2020 survey will be removed from any subsequent calculations of the three-year index and the current average is still well above the management objectives for this population. With these considerations, the Mid-continent Sandhill Crane Population should still be in good shape heading into the fall hunting season. Wetland conditions throughout much of North Dakota have also improved over the last year or so, which will provide plenty of options for roosting sandhill cranes during fall migration.

The two zone – Zone 1 west of U.S. Highway 281 and Zone 2 east of U.S. Highway 281 – structure for sandhill cranes continues. The two zones will have the same season lengths (58 days) and dates, but will continue to have different bag limits. Zone 1 has a daily bag limit of three cranes; in Zone 2 the daily bag limit is two. The possession limit in Zone 1 is nine cranes, and six in Zone 2.

Nonresident sandhill crane hunters can pursue sandhill cranes with either a valid nonresident small game or waterfowl license, in addition to a crane permit. Nonresident sandhill crane permits are valid for use within the dates and zones of nonresident waterfowl or small game licenses selected during purchase.

Hunter are also reminded to be sure of their target before shooting, as federally endangered whooping cranes may be present throughout North Dakota during fall. Report all whooping crane sightings to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck at 701-328-6300.

Andrew Dinges, Migratory Game Bird Biologist, Bismarck

--- Doves ---
Opens: Sept. 1
Closes: Nov. 29
Daily Limit: 15
Possession Limit: 45
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

North Dakota has a large population of breeding mourning doves and based on casual observations, production in the state in 2020 was good to fair.

Relatively normal precipitation and warm weather have made it favorable for doves to nest often during the breeding season. The Game and Fish Department also tallies mourning doves during late summer roadside counts, but numbers have yet to be finalized. Although survey numbers are not currently available, age ratios of juvenile to adult birds captured at banding stations throughout the state have also been indicative of good production this year.

Dove hunters should experience good opportunities during early September before cooler weather sets in and pushes doves south. Hunters are encouraged to scout before the season to find the right mix of conditions conducive to concentrating birds.

Hunters should look for areas with abundant harvested small grain or oilseed fields that are near shelterbelts or other diverse stands of trees. Doves also need to be within a few miles of water sources. Harvest of small grains and oilseed crops are projected to be near average, so hunters should have plenty of places to choose from this fall.

Eurasian collared doves continue to expand throughout the state and are found in almost every city and small town. However, these birds are not often found outside of municipalities and are rarely harvested by hunters. Nonetheless, Eurasian collared doves can be pursued during the dove season and are included with mourning doves in the daily bag and possession limits if harvested.

Some dove hunters may be contacted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to participate in a wing survey, which involves clipping one wing from each dove shot early in the season to send in for analysis. Hunters are also reminded to look for banded mourning doves in their bag and report bands directly to the Bird Banding Laboratory website at

Andrew Dinges

--- Crows ---
Fall Season Opens: Aug. 22
Closes: Nov. 9
Spring Season Opens: March 13, 2021
Closes: April 25, 2021
Daily Limit: No limit on crows.
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

In addition to the crow season, crows may be taken when committing or about to commit depredations as specified in federal law.

--- Snipe ---
Opens: Sept. 12
Closes: Dec. 6
Daily Limit: 8
Possession Limit: 24
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

--- Woodcock ---
Opens: Sept. 26
Closes: Nov. 9
Daily Limit: 3
Possession Limit: 9
Shooting Hours: Half-hour before sunrise to sunset.

Muskrat eating


There are no significant changes to the furbearer regulations this fall. Harvest limits, timing of seasons and zones remain similar to last year.

Spring surveys indicated trappers and hunters can expect coyote numbers similar to last year in most regions of the state. Fox numbers remain low throughout the state. Night hunters for coyote and fox are reminded that the night hunting season opens Nov. 23, after the deer gun season closes. Additionally, hunters pursuing coyotes or fox a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise are not allowed to use archery equipment or crossbows until after the archery deer season closes on Jan. 3, 2021.

Muskrat numbers increased slightly in most regions of the state compared to last year. The highest numbers of muskrats can once again be found in the Prairie Pothole Region.

Similarly, spring surveys indicated increases in raccoons throughout most of the state. Yet, while badger, beaver and mink numbers are up slightly in some regions compared to last year, these species remain below their long-term averages statewide.

Last year, hunters and trappers took 17 fishers, 73 bobcats and 14 mountain lions in Zone 1 (six in the early-season and eight in the late-season) and three mountain lions in Zone 2. Additionally, last season the harvest limit of 20 river otters was reached after 37 days.

We encourage anyone to report sightings of rare furbearers they see at Observations by citizens provide valuable information regarding population distribution, dispersal routes, habitat use and frequency of occurrence.

Many species of furbearers are difficult to survey because of their secretive nature and naturally low densities. Therefore, we encourage reports of these cryptic furbearers, their sign (e.g., tracks), or captures on trail camera photos. Please include only observations you personally witnessed, as firsthand accounts of a species are most accurate.

Stephanie Tucker, Game Management Section Leader, Bismarck

--- Mountain Lion Hunting ---
Zone 1 (early)
Opens: Sep. 4
Closes: Nov. 22
Zone 1 (late)
Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 31, 2021
Zone 2
Opens: Sep. 4
Closes: March 31, 2021

The overall harvest limit on mountain lions in Zone 1 is once again 15, with an early season limit of eight, and a late-season limit of seven (or three females, whichever comes first). If the early season ends before eight mountain lions are taken, a conditional season could reopen after the late season, if the late season limit is reached prior to March 25.

There is no mountain lion harvest limit in Zone 2.

Mountain lions may be hunted statewide by residents using legal firearms or archery equipment during regular hunting hours. Beginning Nov. 23, mountain lions may also be hunted by pursuing with dogs. Cable devices and traps are not allowed. The limit is one lion per hunter. Kittens (lions with visible spots), or females accompanied by kittens, may not be taken.

Any lion taken must be reported to the Department within 12 hours and the entire intact animal must be presented for tagging. Legally taken animals will be returned to the hunter.

--- River Otter Trapping or Cable Devices ---
Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 15, 2021

Limit of one per person. Total harvest limit of 20 statewide.

Trappers must contact the local game warden or Department field office to report their harvest within 12 hours and make arrangements to have their river otter tagged. For more information, see the North Dakota 2020-21 Hunting and Trapping guide.

--- Fisher Trapping or Cable Devices ---
Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: Nov. 29

Open statewide except for Bottineau and Rolette counties. Limit one per person. Trappers must contact the local game warden or Department field office to report their harvest within 12 hours and make arrangements to have their fisher tagged. For more information, see the North Dakota 2020-21 Hunting and Trapping guide.

--- Beaver and Raccoon Hunting, Trapping or Underwater Cable Devices ---
Open: Year-round.

For more information, see the North Dakota 2020-21 hunting and trapping guide.

--- Beaver and Raccoon Cable Devices on Land ---
Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 15, 2021

From March 16, 2021, through May 10, 2021, cable devices must be within 50 feet of water; they must be no more than 4 inches off the ground and must have a stop restricting loop size to 12 inches or less in diameter.

Beaver dams may be dismantled when their presence causes property damage.

--- Weasel Trapping, Hunting or Cable Devices ---
Opens: Oct. 24
Hunting and Cable Devices
Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 15, 2021

Weasels may be hunted statewide with .22 caliber or smaller rimfire rifles or pistols, muzzleloaders of .45 caliber or smaller, longbows and crossbows.

--- Muskrat and Mink Trapping, Hunting or Cable Devices --- Trapping Opens: Oct. 24
Hunting and Cable Devices
Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: May 10, 2021

Muskrat huts may be opened for insertion of traps or cable devices; however, the huts must be restored to their approximate original condition to prevent freeze-up.

Beginning March 16, 2021, colony traps must be under at least 2 inches of water, and trapping or using cable devices on the outside of any muskrat house or structure of any size is prohibited; traps may be placed completely inside a muskrat house or structure of any size, except when used on float sets; foothold traps must be submerged under water at all times or must have a protective covering; body-gripping traps used in water can have no more than 2 inches of the trap above the water or must have a protective covering.

Beginning May 1, 2021, float sets must have a protective covering.

Mink and muskrat may be hunted statewide with .22 caliber or smaller rimfire rifles or pistols, muzzleloaders of .45 caliber or smaller, longbows and crossbows.

--- Bobcat Trapping, Hunting or Cable Devices ---
Hunting and Trapping Opens: Nov. 7
Cable Devices Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 15, 2021

Open only in the area south and west of the Missouri River. Beginning Nov. 23, bobcats may also be hunted by pursuing with dogs.

The pelt and carcass of each bobcat must be presented to Department personnel for inspection and tagging prior to sale or transfer of possession, but no later than 14 days after the close of the season.

For more information, see the 2020-21 Hunting and Trapping Guide.

--- Red Fox, Gray Fox, Coyote Trapping, Hunting or Cable Devices ---
Day hunting and trapping opens: Year-round
Night hunting and cable devices opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 15, 2021

Red fox, gray fox and coyote may be hunted at any hour from Nov. 23 through March 15, 2021. Any hunter who engages in the hunting of red fox, gray fox or coyote during the time from a half-hour after sunset to a half-hour before sunrise, must hunt exclusively on foot.

Hunters can use night vision, artificial light, thermal vision, and infrared light equipment during the night hunting season. Hunters are prohibited from using archery equipment (including crossbows) for night hunting until after the close of the archery deer season.

--- Badger Trapping, Hunting or Cable Devices ---
Hunting and trapping opens: Year-round
Cable Devices Opens: Nov. 23
Closes: March 15, 2021