Published December 06, 2009, 12:00 AM

N.D. Game and Fish to set new deer management goals

The challenge, officials say, is to strike a balance between a deer population that’s big enough to keep hunters happy, but not so large that it causes problems for landowners and motorists. The department last set statewide deer management goals in 2004.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is in the early stages of drafting new deer management goals for the state.

The challenge, officials say, is to strike a balance between a deer population that’s big enough to keep hunters happy, but not so large that it causes problems for landowners and motorists.

The department last set statewide deer management goals in 2004.

“We like to match deer numbers with hunters and tolerance,” said Roger Rostvet, deputy director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “At what point is everybody going to be happy?”

Rostvet and Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for Game and Fish, talked about the goal-setting process Monday night in Grand Forks during the department’s fall advisory board meeting for northeastern 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 70 people, many of them disgruntled deer hunters, attended the Grand Forks meeting.

The strong turnout didn’t go unnoticed among Game and Fish staff.

“If you go into a meeting with 100 people, you screwed up somewhere along the line,” Rostvet joked at the start of the 2½-hour session. “If 10 people show up, they’re generally happy.”

Setting goals

According to Kreil, setting management goals isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Instead, he said, the department looks at factors such as winter population surveys, landowner tolerance, deer depredation, collisions and hunter success to develop specific goals for each of the state’s 37 deer hunting units.

Bill Jensen, the department’s big game biologist in Bismarck, didn’t attend Monday night’s meeting. But in an interview later, Jensen said the first step in setting goals is to look at the five-year buck harvest in each hunting unit.

That provides a starting point.

If the average success rate for bucks is 70 percent — the approximate level North Dakota hunters will accept without complaining — chances are the department is issuing about the right number of tags.

A five-year average that exceeds 70 percent might mean it’s time to offer more doe permits, Jensen said, while a tally below that would suggest it’s time to cut back.

Does are the engine that drives a deer population.

Jensen said the department also looks at license and harvest trends for surrounding units.

“What we’re trying to do is manage the areas on a uniform basis, assuming you can produce just as much, handle as many deer in Grand Forks as, say, the Fargo area or Wahpeton,” he said.

The department in recent years has mailed out a survey the opening week of the gun season to a random sample of hunters. If hunters report seeing two or more deer per hour, they’re generally satisfied, Jensen said.

“It’s an index, and it tells you if you’re seeing a lot of deer per hour, deer populations are probably pretty high,” Jensen said. “If you’re not seeing many, deer numbers are probably decreasing.”

Jensen said comments from field staff familiar with a particular hunting area also factor into setting management goals. In a state where 95 percent of the land is privately owned, he said the department has to keep numbers within levels that landowners will tolerate.

“You can be fooled by just looking at one population index,” he said. “That is why we like to gather several types of information on the deer population.”

It’s not as simple, he said, as producing a deer population that’s large enough to ensure easy hunting.

“The easiest thing in the world is to let the deer population grow,” Jensen said. “We can do that. That’s not hard. The real trick is managing the population at a level that the citizens of North Dakota can reach a consensus on as reasonable.

“That’s the trick — managing people and their concerns. We spend a lot of time thinking about this, and it’s not a perfect system, but we work hard at trying to get it right.”

Different scenario

There’s no doubt that deer aren’t as abundant in North Dakota as they were the last time Game and Fish set management goals.

That’s not an accident, Rostvet said Monday night.

“Five years ago, we were way above goals and aggressively worked to reduce deer numbers,” Rostvet said. “We expect numbers to be down. That was our intent, and we make no apologies.”

For better or worse, though, hunters got used to the high deer population and the hunting opportunity it provided. Hunters in 2006 set a North Dakota record by shooting more than 100,000 deer during the gun season, and Game and Fish in 2007 offered a record 148,550 deer gun licenses.

Last fall, North Dakota hunters shot 91,000 deer, down 7 percent from 98,000 in 2007.

Kreil, the department’s wildlife chief, said Game and Fish will compile specific goals for each management unit this winter and roll out a proposal for public input in time for next spring’s advisory board meetings. The department followed the same process in 2004, he said.

“When we set this up five years ago, we knew it was going to be difficult to hold the line,” Kreil said. “Now, people are saying, ‘Maybe we want more deer hunting opportunity than we said (last time).’ And that’s fine.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to