NORTHWOOD, N.D.–The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is hoping to increase deer populations to a level where it can offer 75,000 gun licenses in five years and maintain the benchmark hunter success rate of 70 percent, department officials say.
Wildlife officials for the department outlined the proposed five-year goal Monday night in Northwood during the fall advisory board meeting for District 4 in northeast North Dakota. Game and Fish is mandated to hold the meetings twice a year in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.
About 50 people attended Monday night’s meeting in Northwood.
Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said the department has set five-year management goals for the state’s deer population since 2005 and is taking comments on new goals that would be in effect through 2019.
Jensen said the most recent goal for 2010 through 2014 called for maintaining a deer population that would accommodate 124,800 gun licenses, but available tags have fallen far short of that in recent deers in the wake of declining deer populations.
Game and Fish this year issued 43,275 deer gun licenses–the lowest since 1978–compared with a record 144,400 deer gun licenses in 2009.
Up … and down
During a presentation Monday night in Northwood, Jensen said a series of mild winters in the mid-2000s resulted in deer populations that exceeded management goals, and hunters weren’t able to keep the numbers in check.
That prompted a management goal of 100,000 licenses during the initial 2005 through 2009 goal-setting process, and 2010-2014 goals that were even higher.
“Consequently, we got real aggressive with our season structure,” Jensen said. “We had early seasons, we had unrestricted numbers of antlerless licenses, and in some units, we weren’t even able to sell all the licenses we had available.”
Then came a series of three hard winters.
“That did what we couldn’t do with hunters, and it really knocked deer numbers back down,” he said.
Jensen said the 70 percent benchmark results from North Dakota’s open landscape. In neighboring Minnesota, by comparison, statistics from the Department of Natural Resources show hunter success in recent years has averaged 25 percent to 30 percent. Only once since 1994–in 2007–has hunter success in Minnesota exceeded 40 percent.
That’s an “apples to oranges” comparison, Jensen said, because Minnesota is a largely wooded state while only 4 percent of North Dakota is forested.
In other words, the landscape can hold only so many deer.
“Hunter success is not just an index of satisfaction,” Jensen said.”It’s also an index of how many deer are on the landscape.”
Jensen said Game and Fish develops an annual index of deer abundance through average harvest rates, winter aerial surveys and hunter observations. It’s not a population estimate, he said, but the index allows managers to look at trends over the long term.
“We’re not going to tell you how many deer are on the landscape,” Jensen said. “We can tell you if we’re harvesting at a specific rate and the population and harvest rate goes up, it’s probably an indicator there’s more deer on the landscape. And if people are seeing more deer during the opening of deer season, there’s probably more deer on the landscape. And if we’re seeing more deer from the air, there’s probably more deer.
“You can be fooled by any one of those variables, but if all those indicators point in the same direction, you’re probably pretty close.”
Jensen said setting an annual harvest rate allows the department to adjust deer license numbers to reach that goal.
That’s why deer license numbers have plummeted in recent years.
“For example, if you want the deer population to go up, you maintain antlered licenses and reduce antlerless permits,” Jensen said. “If deer numbers are too high and above landowner tolerance, we’re going to issue more doe licenses to drive that population down.”
Despite challenges such as declining conservation grasslands, loss of tree rows and other habitat and the impact of oil production in western North Dakota, Jensen said Game and Fish feels the goal of achieving 75,000 licenses in five years is realistic.
“We have to keep in mind that the landscape’s changing,” he said. “But we also have to keep in mind that weather is the big driving factor.”
Some of the hunters in Northwood expressed concern about the impact of gratis licenses on deer hunting opportunities. North Dakota is mandated by law to offer gratis tags to landowners who meet the eligibility requirement of 150 acres.
Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said about 13,000 landowners traditionally receive gratis tags. As a result, only about 30,000 of the 43,275 licenses available for this year’s deer gun season were allocated to hunters who didn’t own land.
North Dakota has about 90,000 potential deer hunters.
“In some of these units, there’s very little public opportunity after gratis licenses are taken out,” Williams said.
If that trend continues, Williams said there could be discussions about allocating gratis licenses based on a percentage of available tags–similar to what’s done with elk and pronghorn–but that would require legislative approval and would have to be driven by hunter support and not Game and Fish.
“If there’s going to be a change there, it’s going to have to come from demand from the public,” said Darrell Nottestad, a former Grand Forks legislator who served on the House Natural Resources Committee. “Personally, I don’t see that happening.”
Nottestad attended the meeting in Northwood.
Williams said Game and Fish “always walks that line” with landowners since 95 percent of the state is privately owned.
“If we’re not able to get along with landowners, we’ve got trouble with our agency,” he said