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Brad Dokken / Forum Communications , Published November 07 2012

Licenses reduced as North Dakota opens deer gun season Friday

GRAND FORKS – For the first time in many years, there will be hunters watching from the sidelines when North Dakota’s 16½-day deer gun season opens at noon Friday.

The state Game and Fish Department this year drastically reduced the number of tags it made available to hunters. Game and Fish offered 65,300 deer gun tags, down from 109,950 licenses last year and the lowest total since 1988.

The reason: Too few deer and poor hunting success last fall.

North Dakota hunters in 2011 shot an estimated 57,000 deer for a success rate of 52 percent. That’s far below the benchmark of 70 percent North Dakota hunters typically expect before they start complaining.

By comparison, North Dakota hunters shot a record 100,000 deer in 2006.

According to Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, three consecutive severe winters from 2008 through 2010 and several years of aggressive harvest strategies combined to reduce deer populations.

As recently as two years ago, for example, hundreds of leftover doe permits were available in hunting hunts such as 2C north and west of Grand Forks. In those cases, hunters could buy an unlimited number of licenses as long as tags remained.

Throw in last fall’s outbreak of a viral disease called EHD – short for epizootic hemorrhagic disease – in southwest North Dakota, and deer numbers were compromised even further. Game and Fish even offered refunds to hunters in some southwest hunting units last fall because the EHD outbreak was so severe.

“There’s a few deer on the landscape, especially in the west,” Jensen said. “Deer numbers are down in the northeast, too, but we responded in kind with reduced licenses available, so those that did get a license should get an opportunity to harvest a deer.”

Jensen said Game and Fish opted to be especially conservative with licenses this year because there wasn’t enough snow last winter to conduct aerial deer surveys.

North Dakota uses what’s called a “unit management system” to manage the state’s deer herd, offering a set number of tags in each of the state’s 38 hunting units. Once those licenses are gone, hunters who didn’t draw a tag are out of luck.

This year, that includes Jensen.

“I’ve got nothing,” he said. “I didn’t draw a tag this year.”

Besides offering fewer licenses, Game and Fish this year completely closed the season on mule deer does in western North Dakota in an effort to help the population recover.

“Particularly in the northern part of the Badlands, they had very severe winters for a couple of years, and mule deer weren’t doing very well,” Jensen said.

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks Herald