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2022 in Review


Sharp-tailed grouse standing in dried grass 
Sharp-tailed Grouse

One of the factors that can have a huge impact on fish and wildlife resources in North Dakota is the weather. What’s particularly frustrating to fish and wildlife managers is that we obviously have no control over the one thing that can swing those populations either up or down in a big way.

We experienced a severe drought just a year ago, yet spring 2022 looked promising from a moisture standpoint, painting a much rosier picture for the future of our fish and wildlife resources. Lakes that experienced declining water levels were once again filled and the terrestrial habitat seemingly rebounded overnight. Unfortunately, some of that moisture came in the form of a couple of major spring blizzards. It was disheartening to learn about the loss of livestock because of those heavy, wet snows.

Drier conditions prevailed over much of the state after the late spring snows and rain, and we’re once again crossing our fingers for adequate moisture levels going into next spring.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease is largely influenced by climatic factors and is just one example of something that can have a devasting effect on some of our localized deer herds. EHD is a fatal disease that mostly affects white-tailed deer and it impacted our whitetail herd in 2021 to a magnitude that we’d never seen. Significant die-offs occurred in areas of the state that rarely experience EHD. The region that was most affected appeared to center around the Missouri River corridor, but EHD was also verified in areas as far east as the Red River valley.

Fortunately, EHD was a non-issue in 2022 and our whitetail population has started to rebound in those areas most affected last year. While it may take a few years with favorable habitat conditions for those local whitetail populations to fully recover, it is encouraging that it’s at least moving in the right direction.

One of the positives worth reporting from 2022 is that, at least at the time of this writing, no new zebra mussel infestations were reported.

It’s also encouraging to hear reports of good numbers of pheasants and Hungarian partridge from certain areas across the state.

We’re often asked why there aren’t as many deer or pheasants in certain parts of the state as there were several years ago. The short answer is habitat. There just isn’t as much habitat on the landscape as, say, 10 or 15 years ago.

Like many of our constituents, we’d also like to see wildlife numbers similar to back then, but it’s unrealistic to expect that we’re going to be able to achieve that given the existing habitat base we have to work with.

On that front, we’re working on and tracking a few federal initiatives that will hopefully turn that trend around to a certain degree. While we normally tend to focus most of our energies on huntable/catchable species, some of these initiatives are aimed at the management and recovery of our state’s species of conservation priority. In North Dakota, there are currently 115 species that fit into that category. These are species like the Western meadowlark, our state bird, that are in decline and in need of some special attention to hopefully reverse downward population trends and begin moving the needle in their favor.

Most of these species are grassland dependent and so one of the recovery strategies will be to increase and improve grassland habitat in strategic locations with the goal of preventing these species from being listed on the threatened and endangered species list.

There will undoubtedly be some level of success with these initiatives over the next several years and, indirectly at least, many of the species we traditionally focus on will receive a shot in the arm from that as well.

SCOTT PETERSON is the Game and Fish Department’s deputy director.

White-tailed Doe

Prolonged EHD Fallout

The number of deer gun licenses made available to hunters by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department had been on the rise since 2016.

That changed in 2022, and the blame for the reduction of 8,000 deer tags compared to 2021 was assigned to epizootic hemorrhagic disease.

In 2021, amid significant drought conditions that hamstrung much, if not all, of the state, the Game and Fish Department received its first report on Aug. 1 of deer dying from EHD near Mandan.

The fallout of the naturally occurring virus spread by a biting midge often fatal to white-tailed deer, and less commonly to mule deer, pronghorn and elk, was still being felt a year later when the Department made available just 64,200 deer tags, the lowest allocation since 2018.

Dr. Charlie Bahnson, Game and Fish Department wildlife veterinarian, said the EHD outbreak in 2021 was on par with the worst that big game biologists had witnessed in terms of EHD attributed mortality.

While EHD has often been documented in southwestern North Dakota for decades, the hardest hit areas of the state in 2021 were along the Missouri River north and south of Bismarck-Mandan, as well as a smaller area near Williston. And in 2022, following the deaths of an untold number of deer, that’s where licenses were most greatly reduced.

On the upside, Department officials said there were zero confirmed reports of deer dying of EHD in 2022.

Pintail duck pair 
Pintail Pair

Waterfowl Survey Landmark

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s annual breeding duck survey was held in mid-May, making it the 75th year the survey was held without interruption. The survey is the longest running breeding waterfowl survey in the world.

The survey showed an index of 3.4 million ducks in the state. Wetland conditions across the state varied from good to excellent, and following extreme drought in 2021, the wetland index skyrocketed 616%, the largest single-year percentage increase on record, thanks to April blizzards and abundant rain. Overall, the 2022 breeding duck index was the 23rd highest in the 75 years of the survey, up 16% from 2021, and 38% above the long-term average.

Except for blue-winged teal, gadwall, green-winged teal and wigeon, all of North Dakota’s primary breeding duck species had indices that increased from 2021. Mallards were up 58% and represented their 25th highest index on record. Ruddy ducks increased 157%, while shovelers and pintails increased 126% and 108%, respectively. Other species’ indices increased from 4% (scaup) to 69% (canvasbacks). However, some species were still below their long-term average, most notably pintails (minus 32%) and wigeon (minus 24%).

Not surprisingly, the number of broods observed during the Department’s July brood survey increased considerably, up 36% from 2021 and 5% above the 1965-2021 average. Average brood size was 7.15 ducklings, up 11% from the 2021 estimate.

North Dakota’s landscape dried up a bit following a very wet spring. July wetland counts were up 81% from 2021, and 12% above the long-term average. Precipitation persisted enough to keep duck brood habitats in good to excellent condition. For the most part, numbers and conditions of wetlands were good to very good, with wetter conditions in the eastern half of the state.

The 2022 fall flight forecast of ducks from North Dakota was expected to be up 26% from 2021 and the 25th highest fall flight from the state on record.

Mule Deer 
Mule Deer Doe

Mule Deer Numbers Fall

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s fall mule deer survey indicated slightly better fawn production than 2021, but there was concern over the lower number of deer counted compared to previous falls.

Biologists counted 1,116 mule deer in the aerial survey in October, down significantly from the 2021 fall count of 2,163 deer. The ratio of 69 fawns per 100 does was higher than 2021 (60/100) but well below the long-term average (87/100), while 40 bucks per 100 does was similar to 2021 (38/100) and the long-term (43/100) average.

Although the fall survey is designed to assess mule deer demographics in the badlands – bucks per 100 does and fawns per 100 does – biologists were concerned about the lower number of mule deer counted in fall versus the last few years.

Ratios are meaningless, big game biologists said, without relation to population level, which is determined during the spring survey. This was the first survey following extreme blizzards that hit in April at a time when deer were struggling with extreme drought conditions for close to two years.

It appeared that many deer were lost that were in poor body condition, according to the 2022 spring index. Biologists said the 2023 spring index will be very telling in helping better understand what effect late spring blizzards had on mule deer survival and fawn production in 2022.

The fall aerial survey, conducted specifically to study demographics, covered 24 study areas and 306.3 square miles in western North Dakota. Biologists also surveyed the same study areas in spring to determine deer abundance.

Brady Mattson with a Sakakawea walleye.

Record Waters, Good Fishing

Going into last winter, with many North Dakota waters lower than they’d been in sometime thanks to severe drought, Game and Fish Department fisheries managers worried that declining waters levels and other factors would lead to significant winterkill.

Winterkill is a game changer, fisheries managers agree, because in a bad winter, North Dakota can lose 20 waters on the low side to as many as 50 waters on the high side.

Turns out, North Dakota didn’t experience much winterkill and the 450 or so waters, a record number of waters across the landscape, had good to excellent fish populations in 2022, and provided lots of opportunities for anglers.

A number of fisheries in North Dakota, from the dozens of new prairie walleye lakes to the bigger, well-known waters like the Missouri River and Devils Lake, had their tales of good fishing during the open water months and Lake Sakakawea, for example, was one of them.

Department fisheries biologists said 2022 was an exceptional year for fishing on the big lake. The lake continued to harbor a great walleye population and a great forage population. While rainbow smelt abundance was still high throughout the reservoir, what biologists observed in fall was high reproduction of alternative forage fish that game fish species feed on.

Also of note, fisheries biologists said the fall reproduction survey on Sakakawea showed the strongest sauger reproduction documented in the last 50 years.

Record Bighorn Sheep Tally

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 2021 bighorn sheep survey, completed by recounting lambs in March 2022, revealed a record 335 bighorn sheep in western North Dakota, up 4% from 2020 and 15% above the five-year average. The count surpassed the previous record of 322 bighorns in 2020.

In total, biologists counted 99 rams, 175 ewes and 61 lambs. Not included were approximately 40 bighorn sheep in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park and bighorns introduced to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in 2020.

This was the fourth consecutive year the survey saw an increase.

The northern badlands population increased 6% from 2020 and was the highest count on record. The southern badlands population declined again to the lowest level since bighorns were reintroduced there in 1966.

Biologists were encouraged to see the count of adult rams increase to near record levels, and adult ewes were at record numbers. Most encouraging was a record lamb count corresponding with a record recruitment rate.

Department biologists counted and classified all bighorn sheep in late summer, and then recounted lambs the following March as they approached one year of age to determine recruitment.

Department staff, in conjunction with biologists from the Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Division, also reported the bighorn sheep translocated in January 2020 from Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana to the Fort Berthold Reservation performed exceptionally well their second year in the state. The population nearly doubled in just two years, which is exceptional population performance for bighorn sheep.

It was estimated in 2022 that there were about 450 bighorn sheep among populations managed by the Game and Fish Department, National Park Service and Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Division. The next benchmark is 500 bighorns in the state, which seemed improbable just a few years ago.

The Department allocated five bighorn sheep licenses for the 2022 hunting season, the same as 2021.

Updated CWD Plan Unveiled

North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials held three public meetings in late summer in Fargo, Dickinson and Minot to update hunters and others about the status of chronic wasting disease in the state and how Game and Fish hopes to address the disease in the future.

A CWD task force of agency employees from several divisions was formed in 2021 to review the science of CWD, evaluate the status of CWD management in North Dakota, and chart a best path forward while folding in lessons across North America over decades.

The task force updated the Department’s CWD and surveillance plan, which was unveiled in 2022 at the public meetings. The updated plan for the always fatal disease to deer and other cervids that has found some footing in North Dakota and will forever remain on the landscape, will go into play in 2023.

CWD, caused by a prion protein that leads to irreversible damage to the nervous system, was first identified in North Dakota in mule deer in 2009 and white-tailed deer in 2013.

Department officials said the Game and Fish has tested more than 40,000 deer in the state for CWD in the last 20 years and followed the science and applied different tools for managing for CWD.

Yet here we are 20 years later, Department officials acknowledged, and it was time to stop and do a comprehensive reassessment of where they’re at and where they hope to go considering the certainty that chronic wasting disease is going nowhere and has the potential to significantly impact North Dakota’s big game populations if left unchecked.

Pheasants Up, Sharptails Down

North Dakota’s late summer roadside surveys indicated pheasant and Hungarian partridge were up from 2021, while sharp-tailed grouse numbers were down.

Department biologists said the annual late summer counts showed mixed results as they observed an increase in pheasant and partridge densities and reproductive rates with average brood size and age ratios, while sharptails decreased in density but had improved reproductive rates from 2021.

Total pheasants observed (49 per 100 miles) were up 9% from last year and broods (5.3) per 100 miles were up 8%. The average brood size (6.2) was up 7%.

Sharptail hunters were told to expect to find more hatch-year grouse in fall. The rangeland vegetation was significantly taller, and there were many more areas to search to find grouse than 2021 during the drought.

Sharptails observed per 100 miles were down 30% statewide. Brood survey results showed two sharptail broods and 13 sharptails per 100 miles. Average brood size was six.

Generally, most of the partridge harvest no matter the year is incidental while hunters pursue grouse or pheasants. But in 2022, with partridge numbers looking impressive, biologists indicated there might be pockets of birds where hunters could focus primarily on Huns.

Partridge observed per 100 miles were up 46%. Observers recorded one partridge brood and 12 partridge per 100 miles. Average brood size was 10. The last time partridge numbers looked this good was 2015.


“As somebody who’s from North Dakota, I want to see healthy prairie habitat. And I think rattlesnakes are one of the keys to doing that in central and western North Dakota,” said Matthew Smith, associate professor with North Dakota State University biological services department.

“In my time with the Department, I have heard a lot of different opinions on what should be done as wildlife populations have declined on the landscape … from changes to the deer lottery system, to access to wildlife on the landscape. However, if you look deep into these issues, the fixes suggested are more band-aid than a solution. The one thing that makes most of these issues go away is habitat, which can improve soil health, water quality, water quantity, and ultimately wildlife populations,” said Casey Anderson Department wildlife division chief.

“Quality of life, at least for those who hunt and fish, is taking advantage of a crisp fall morning chasing roosters, decoying waterfowl, sitting comfortably 12 feet up in your favorite tree, or wetting a line later in the day when the temperature hits that perfectly comfortable 60 degrees. Or perhaps a combination of some of these activities all in one day,” said Jeb Williams, Department director.

“The does are still putting on food reserves, but once they hit winter, they can’t really eat enough to gain any more weight. So, as the winter progresses, it’s kind of like a bucket with a hole in it. And the longer the winter is, the more severe the winter is, the more energy reserves are going to drain out of that bucket,” said Bill Jensen, Department big game management biologist.

“Knock on wood, but because of the high water this spring and the flooded vegetation at the right time, it appears to have produced a very strong yellow perch year-class throughout most of our waters. That will pay dividends to the angler three, four years from now, and maybe we’ll have a real resurgence in some quality perch lakes throughout the state,” said Greg Power, Department fisheries chief.

2022 Statistics

2021-22 Licenses and Permits Issued

Type Resident Nonresident
Individual Fishing 43,936 18,428
Married Couple Fishing 12,069 6,076
Senior Citizen Fishing 14,799  
Disabled Fishing 285  
Short-Term Fishing 10-Day   7,766
Short-Term Fishing 3-Day   25,735
Paddlefish Tags 2,811 631
Commercial Tags 10  
Retail Bait Vendor 220  
Wholesale Bait Vendor 32 3
Fish Hatchery 2  
2021 Boat Registrations (First year of 3-year decal) 10,895  
General Game Hunting 42,802 41,282
Small Game Hunting 12,724 21,209
Combination License 63,801  
Waterfowl Hunting   23,062
Furbearer Hunting/Trapping 6,564 2,716
Fur Buyer 26 8
Deer Gun Hunting 54,662 716
Deer Gun Hunting (Gratis) 11,803 301
Deer Bowhunting 26,238 3,501
Moose Hunting 401  
Moose Hunting (Preferential Landowner) 68  
Elk Hunting 445  
Elk Hunting (Preferential Landowner) 88  
Turkey Hunting (Spring) 7,266  
Turkey Hunting (Fall) 3,550  
Turkey Hunting (Gratis Spring) 568  
Turkey Hunting (Gratis Fall) 306  
Habitat Stamp 106,603  
Shooting Preserve 12  
Fishing/Hunting Guide 308 53
Taxidermist 287 7
Falconry 4  
Scientific Collector 28 34
Swan 1,413 787
Sandhill Crane 2,581 2,316

2022 Special Big Game Licenses

Type Licenses Available Applications Received
Moose 400 26,038
Elk 559 23,427
Bighorn Sheep 5 19,423

Financial Statement - July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022

Type Amount
Income $38,789,812
Expenses $38,366,692

Fund Balances, Fixed Assets and Long-term Debt

Type Amount
Game and Fish General Fund $29,175,265
Habitat and Depredation Fund $4,165,907
Nongame Wildlife Fund $145,921
Aquatic Nuisance Species Program $110,205
TOTAL ALL FUNDS $33,597,299
FIXED ASSETS $58,207,479


  • 2,639 Number of sharptailed grouse counted on spring dancing grounds, down from 3,281 in 2021.
  • 22% The decline in roosters heard crowing during the Department’s spring pheasant crowing count compared to 2021.
  • 800,000 Approximate number of PLOTS acres on the landscape in 2022.
  • 81,000 Number of Canada geese counted during the Department's midwinter waterfowl survey.
  • 7.4 million Number of private land acres electronically posted.
  • 1.8 million Approximate number of chinook salmon eggs collected during the Department's annual salmon spawn.
  • 60 lbs. 8 oz Weight of new bow/spear state record buffalo taken by Mitch Estabrook from Heart Butte Reservoir.
  • 70 million Approximate number of walleye eggs collected in spring, surpassing the goal of 58 million eggs