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Brad Dokken / Forum News Service, Published November 06 2013

A different type of deer season on tap for ND

GRAND FORKS - The days of abundant bonus tags and concurrent licenses that allowed hunters to take deer with a bow, rifle or muzzleloader during the appropriate hunting seasons are history in North Dakota – at least for the foreseeable future.

North Dakota’s 16½-day deer gun season opens at noon Friday and ends Nov. 24. The Game and Fish Department this year offered 59,500 tags, a decline of 5,800 from last year and the lowest since 1983.

By comparison, Game and Fish offered a record 145,250 deer gun licenses in 2004, a season when North Dakota hunters killed 98,500 deer for an overall success rate of 74 percent. Hunters last year killed about 34,500 deer during the gun season for a success rate of 63 percent, the Game and Fish Department said.

Each hunter spent an average of 4.4 days in the field.

According to Randy Kreil, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, the drastic reduction in gun tags this year results from a decline in deer numbers in most parts of the state. Northeast North Dakota, including hunting units 2B and 2C near Grand Forks, saw some of the biggest reductions in tags, Kreil said. A string of severe winters, broken only by the mild winter of 2011-2012, played a big part in the decline of deer herds not only in the northeast, but in most other parts of the state with the exception of a handful of southwest units.

Game and Fish also was given a directive by the 2011 state Legislature to reduce deer numbers, Kreil said. This past summer, the wildlife chief wrote a letter to a disappointed hunter who was lamenting the decline in deer numbers. In the letter, Kreil wrote that no hunters stepped up during the 2011 legislative hearings to support keeping deer populations high.

“The hearings were brutal and very critical of the department, and not a single hunter stood up to say they wanted to maintain deer hunting at levels they enjoyed in previous years,” Kreil wrote in the letter, which he also shared with the Herald. “Thus, the Legislature was very clear in their direction on how we should handle deer management in the future.”

This year that means 44,000 hunters didn’t draw deer tags.

Few complaints

While the reduction in tags means some 44,000 people won’t be hunting deer this fall in North Dakota, Kreil said he hasn’t heard many complaints.

“People fully understand the situation and understand we need to cut back on licenses, and so we’re not hearing a lot from disgruntled people,” Kreil said. “They understand it will take some time to rebuild, but people’s patience will only last so long.

“At some point, they will be more concerned than they are now.”

On the upside, Kreil said the department has been hearing positive reports from waterfowl and upland game hunters who are seeing more deer this fall than in previous years, even with all the standing corn and sunflowers.

“So, that’s a positive sign,” he said.

Another positive, Kreil said, is the outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease – best known as EHD, for short – in southwest North Dakota wasn’t as bad as the die-offs in 2011 that prompted the department to refund licenses for hunters who chose to not go afield. The disease, a naturally occurring virus spread by a biting midge, mainly affects white-tailed deer populations during hot, humid weather in late summer and early fall.

Still, this year’s outbreak was severe enough for Game and Fish in September to suspend the sale of more than 1,000 antlerless deer licenses that remained after the second lottery in units 3F1, 3F2 and 4F.

The blizzard that pounded southwest North Dakota in October before the pheasant opener pretty much ended the EHD risk, Kreil said.

“Things have quieted down quite a bit,” Kreil said. “It’s nowhere near as bad” as 2011.

Challenges remain

Kreil said a return to more modest winters, such as the decade of mild seasons that followed the severe winter of 1996-1997, would help deer populations rebound.

But there’s a difference between the scenario then and what’s happening on the landscape now, he added.

“Without severe weather, we can anticipate deer bouncing back a little bit more but realize all that’s going to be tempered by the habitat losses we’re experiencing,” Kreil said. “Northeast North Dakota also had really good habitat, and deer were able to bounce back right away with 10 nice winters in a row.”

Now, though, much of that habitat either has been plowed or drained.

Kreil said the reduction in deer licenses may temper the excitement of opening day, but the event remains steeped in tradition that hunters can experience in other ways.

“Some of those 44,000 people will still go along as ‘brush beagles,’ still go along for the deer hunting experience to help look for deer and drag them out and make sausage and be part of the tradition,” he said.

They just won’t get to pull the trigger.

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks Herald