Terry Steinwand is director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. He was appointed to the position Nov. 30, 2005, by then-Gov. John Hoeven and took over the department helm Jan. 1, 2006.
A Garrison, N.D., native and UND graduate, Steinwand, 66, has been with the Game and Fish Department nearly 38 years and was fisheries chief from 1990 through 2005. In his position as director, Steinwand oversees a department of 165 full-time employees and a crew of seasonal workers that typically numbers about 50.
During a recent phone interview, Steinwand talked about a variety of North Dakota outdoors-related issues, challenges and opportunities. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: How’s the department faring through COVID-19?
TS: Things are going good. It’s like everything else, whether it’s a state agency or private business, there’s some adaptations that have to be made with the offices being shut down to the public. But it really hasn’t affected us too much, and primarily because our licensing is all online.
We have the vast majority of our people working remotely right now. There are still a few people in the office answering phones etc.
And of course our field offices, their field staff, they’re out doing the things they need to be doing when they can, following (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines, Department of Health guidelines, everything. We’ve really had to adapt to those situations.
There are still some challenges out there, but I’d say they’re going as well as can be expected.
Q: Has there been any impact on fishing license sales?
TS: We’ve seen a real surge in (resident) fishing license sales this year. We’re anywhere between 35% and 40% above last year, and it’s really reminiscent of 2008, when the recession was on, a lot of people lost their jobs and everything. We saw a similar bump at that point in time.
A year ago, we were very concerned about the demographic of 16- to 29-year-olds that they were just falling off. We couldn’t figure out why. But right now, teenagers, 20-year-olds, they’re one of the highest groups in terms of license sales.
Q: What are you hearing from wardens or others in the field about anglers following the social distance rules?
TS: It’s actually going pretty well. I’ve got to thank the wardens. I really put a lot on them this spring. It’s one of those that, “OK, here’s the governor’s recommendation, CDC, for social distancing, so I need you to go out to some of those very high traffic areas that we know are high traffic from the past and take a look at it.”
And for the most part, I’m going to say not consistently and not always, but for the most part, people have really done a good job of social distancing.
Q: How has North Dakota’s fishing landscape changed since you became Game and Fish director?
TS: When I left the fisheries division, we were managing about 185 lakes. I think it’s 402 right now, and we have been as high as 450.
But again, did we create those? We created the fisheries but did we create the lakes? No, Mother Nature did that for us and primarily the eastern third of the state. But we have a great fisheries crew; they’ve put a lot of work into making sure those fisheries are out there in terms of stocking, trap and transport, putting boat landings in, fishing piers etc.
But again, it’s not just Game and Fish, it’s a lot of partners out there that are helping us do all that, too.
Q: How about the hunting landscape?
TS: I would probably say not as good today as it was at that point in time, but we really were at a high point in 2006. (Conservation Reserve Program) acres were over 3 million acres, we’d had about four or five consecutive nice winters, and so our deer and our pheasant and grouse populations were really at a high point.
Of course, we’ve lost a lot of CRP and had three consecutive nasty winters (beginning about 2009). We’re climbing back out of that, but we consistently say it’s really hard to climb out very quickly when you don’t have the habitat.
And did we have hard winters during CRP? Yes, but we had the habitat so at least the pheasant population, which is a relatively short-lived bird, they were able to bounce back pretty quickly. We don’t see that bounceback anymore.
Q: As Game and Fish director, what keeps you awake at night?
TS: Oh boy, there’s a lot of stuff that keeps me awake right now.
Safety of employees right now and the public is one. What keeps me awake is, I always want to do more, I always want to do better. One of our big priorities is the R3 – recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters and anglers – because that is our source of revenue. That’s how we pay our employees. That’s how we put habitat on the ground. That’s how we stock fish. And if we lose license sales, our ability to do that becomes less and less and less.
Q: How would you say North Dakota’s doing in terms of R3?
TS: We have a lot of recruitment tools: You don’t need a fishing license up until you’re 16. The Lure ‘Em for Life (fishing nonprofit), we help them out. Turkey licenses for youth, deer licenses for youth, waterfowl season, pheasant season.
In terms of how we’re doing compared with other states, our sales have declined a little bit, but not to the extent that a lot of states across the nation have declined.
Q: There’s some frustration that once a young hunter is too old for a youth deer gun license and has to enter the lottery, they often can’t draw a tag. How do you overcome that and make sure they don’t fall by the wayside?
TS: That’s a good question. One thing – the more opportunities we give, and we’ve heard it before – “OK, well why didn’t you give preference to 16- to 18-year-olds?” Well, all of a sudden, then you’re taking away some other opportunity out there because there’s only a finite number of deer. So where do you take it from? The 60- to 70-year-olds? The 30- to 40-year-olds? Well, now we’ve got a whole other set of challenges.
Our answer to that has been, the lottery systems are set up for equitability to the extent that they can be equitable. But you have pheasant seasons, you have grouse season, you have waterfowl season. Yeah, there’s daily limits, but you can go out every day.
And I know deer hunting is as much of a social activity as it is an outdoor hunting activity. But grouse hunting or pheasant hunting can be the same also.
Q: Does archery deer hunting continue to grow since hunters can buy those licenses over the counter?
TS: It’s kind of stabilized the last couple years. It was a pretty quickly growing activity, especially after 2011 and ’12, when we really saw a massive decline in the number of deer gun licenses available. It was growing pretty fast, but it stabilized around that (22,000 to 22,500) resident bowhunters right now. We’ll see this fall, but we’ve got more deer (gun) licenses out there too. We’re certainly not seeing a decrease in interest.
Q: During the most recent advisory board meeting, there was a little bit of discussion about putting in some kind of a lottery system for archery mule deer in the Badlands. Where do you see that going?
TS: It won’t go anywhere this year, because the deer proclamation’s already signed (by Gov. Doug Burgum). But that’s on our list of things to discuss. We’ve actually heard it from landowners out there, too, and they’re a pretty good source of information, that “Boy, we’re seeing more and more hunters out here.”
Which tells us the attraction of the Badlands – and we have to assume it’s for mule deer – is pretty darn high right now. I don’t see that declining in the near future.
So that is something we’re discussing. What actually is going to occur in that arena? I guess I’m not sure at this point.
Q: How is North Dakota doing in terms of aquatic nuisance species?
TS: I think we’re doing alright. Again, we thought we were doing alright in Ashtabula, too, until last year. (Ashtabula now is an infested water for zebra mussels.) Increased monitoring, increased education with the additional authority the Legislature and the governor gave us for ANS stickers for boats registered outside of North Dakota, increased license fees – minimal – to resident and nonresident anglers.
So there’s going to be increased education efforts, which is probably going to be a little tougher this year, again, with the coronavirus and social distancing aspect.
Q: How about chronic wasting disease?
TS: It is certainly one of the top priorities. There’s so much we don’t know about – and when I say we, it’s as a wildlife community across the world. What do we do about it?
We’re making some hunters extremely uneasy, and some of them probably angry, with some of the regulations we’re putting in place. But those are the things we need to do to reduce or minimize the risk of spreading it out.
Q: If you could spend a perfect day outside in North Dakota, be it hunting or fishing, what would you do?
TS: Oh, boy (laughs). You know, I’ve done this two times in my life, when my kids were teenagers, but we’d go up to the farm, we’d hunt geese in the morning, we’d hunt pheasants late morning/early afternoon and then go fishing on Sakakawea and Audubon.
And it didn’t happen very often, but if you limited it out on everything, you didn’t want to do that very often because you’re cleaning (birds and fish) until well after midnight.
To me that’s a perfect day, though.