Published April 15, 2012, 12:00 AM

N.D. Game and Fish slashes deer license numbers

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department this week said it is proposing to slash the number of deer tags available for the state’s fall rifle season in response to drastic declines in populations and hunting success. As part of the proposal, Game and Fish is planning to offer 65,250 rifle tags this fall. That’s a cut of 44,700 from last year and the lowest number of tags since 1992.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

MINTO, N.D. — The numbers won’t be final until the end of the month, but North Dakota deer hunters should plan on less venison sausage this fall.

A lot less.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department this week said it is proposing to slash the number of deer tags available for the state’s fall rifle season in response to drastic declines in populations and hunting success.

As part of the proposal, Game and Fish is planning to offer 65,250 rifle tags this fall. That’s a cut of 44,700 from last year and the lowest number of tags since 1992.

“Hunting success was lousy last fall,” said Roger Rostvet, deputy director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “We need to make some serious reductions.”

Rostvet and wildlife chief Randy Kreil outlined the reductions Tuesday night during the department’s spring advisory board meeting in Minto. Game and Fish holds the meetings twice a year in each of the state’s advisory board districts.

Rostvet said there could be some adjustments to the proposal before April 26, when it’s due in the governor’s office, but they would be minor.

Up … and down

Unlike neighboring Minnesota, which sells deer licenses over the counter, North Dakota offers a set number of doe tags and buck tags in each of the state’s 38 hunting units, and hunters who draw a license by lottery then must stay in that particular unit. Kreil said the approach, known as the “unit management system,” allows the department to manage deer numbers in each unit based on variables such as winter population surveys, the previous year’s hunting success and car-vehicle collisions.

Before the recent setback, deer populations had been on a steady rise since the winter of 1996-97, despite aggressive efforts to keep numbers in check. Game and Fish offered a record 149,400 tags in 2008, and in units 2C and 2D in northeast North Dakota, the department even offered early doe seasons in 2008 and 2009.

“No matter how we raised the licenses, deer populations kept going up,” Kreil said. “We had hunters telling us we had too many deer.”

Hunting success began to decline in 2009, which also coincided with three consecutive severe winters. Still, Game and Fish kept license numbers high — too high, perhaps, Kreil acknowledged, considering present deer numbers.

“In hindsight, should we have reduced those (license) numbers sooner?” he asked. “Probably, we should have.”

The proposed reductions also mean hunters won’t be able to draw more than one rifle deer tag. As recently as last fall, hunters could buy an unlimited number of doe tags in units where licenses remained after the lottery.

“There’s going to be a lot of people in North Dakota who are not going to get a deer tag this year,” Rostvet said.

Hunters who draw a rifle tag still can apply for a muzzleloader license, although proportionately fewer tags will be available. Resident archery hunters won’t be affected.

“Archery hunters still have it pretty good because no matter what happens, they get to go hunting,” Kreil said.

By the numbers

Historically, a success rate of 70 percent has been the benchmark for deer hunters in North Dakota. Last fall, Kreil said, doe hunting success in Unit 2C was only 40 percent. Successful hunters also had to spend more time afield to shoot their deer.

“In 2C, it used to be .5 to .7 days and maybe as high as 1½ days,” Kreil said. “This past year, it was five or six days. We’ve never seen numbers like that before — ever.”

The department’s proposal also includes closing the mule deer doe season in the state’s eight southwest mule deer units.

“It’s pretty drastic, but we’re asking everybody to bite the bullet all at once for a couple of years to get us back where we want to be,” Kreil said.

In 2C, that would be a deer population high enough to accommodate 5,000 doe tags and 5,000 buck tags and a hunter success rate of 70 percent.

Kreil said this year’s mild winter should result in favorable deer production this spring. And despite the extent of the cuts, he said he hasn’t heard any complaints from deer hunters.

“There’s complete buy-in from everybody we’ve talked to,” Kreil said. “I think people are surprised at how significantly the license numbers were cut for this year. Based on last year’s success and what we saw, we had to do it.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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