BISMARCK The Conference on the Future of Hunting in North Dakota was held because of major changes, either under way or anticipated, affecting much of North Dakota's prime hunting country. The conference took place in Bismarck March 30-31 under the direction of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation.
The gathering included professionals from various game and land agencies, state and federal. The president of the North Dakota Farmer's Union was on the agenda. So were other parties with an array of interests in North Dakota's changing landscape.
The impending loss of thousands of Conservation Reserve Program acres and the impact to wildlife and hunting by energy development were two major items on the minds of organizers and attendees. It was hoped the conference would discover workable solutions to a growing threat to wildlife habitat.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple opened the conference. He had the ear of everyone in the room and talked to them directly.
"I just want to make it clear to everybody that I am a hunter. I've been doing it my whole life. I get out for pheasants, grouse, waterfowl. I really think it is a very, very important part of what we have to offer in North Dakota. We've really got a great thing going in North Dakota and we really want to preserve it to the greatest extent that we possibly can. We know it's a great resource and we've really got to work to protect it."
After complimenting members of the conference for work they've already done to mitigate habitat loss and preserve North Dakota's hunting tradition, Dalrymple acknowledged the link between habitat and good hunting. Then he turned his comments to CRP and energy development. His words had a stunning effect on the conference.
"We do have a big challenge facing us right now with the loss of CRP," said Dalrymple. "I have a little different attitude toward it. I think we should not accept the presumption that some people have, that we are going to lose a whole bunch of CRP.
It is part of the Farm Program. It is a very popular program nation-wide. It has enjoyed great political support. I don't think that we should accept that the farm bill is going to allow that program to disintegrate. We have to have a CRP program that recognizes rents are higher, has to be competitive and I don't think we should concede that that's impossible."
Then, to a completely quiet and riveted audience, Dalrymple spoke about energy development that has overtaken major hunting areas in western North Dakota
"In the last couple of months we have learned that in the southwest quadrant of North Dakota, oil development is not going to be what people thought for a while. It now appears that some of the exploratory drilling has not gone that well south of I-94. Companies have told us they are pulling out exploratory drilling rigs from that area. It doesn't appear that area will come on anything like it was first predicted," stated Dalrymple. "In the northwest quadrant of the state, where things are really, really busy, there are indications now that some kind of crest in activity may be on the horizon. We've had several companies tell us that they are within 10 percent of the largest workforce they've ever had in North Dakota and they will move into the development phase of drilling. I'm not trying to tell you it's going to drop off overnight. It won't be like that."
Dalrymple told the gathering that a "huge amount" of pipleline activity, primarily a pipeline that will carry more than half the oil in the Bakken Formation to the east, will substantially reduce truck traffic.
"One pipeline, 73 miles, removed 50,000 truck miles per day from the area in which it was built," said Dalrymple. "There is room for some optimism that we can improve the situation and reduce the impact as time goes by."
Then the governor turned to the issues of habitat, wildlife and hunting.
"Keeping impacts down as much as possible is key. Our state's programs can always be enhanced, whether it is PLOTS or something else," said Dalrymple. "I just want to say that my administration is really committed to keeping this resource that we know is so valuable and we are not influenced or owned by anybody else that is going to have more to say what happens than the hunter or fisherman. That is where we go for our advice."
Most in attendance had no idea what the governor was going to say or where he stood in regard to the all important clash of development versus habitat, but they had no doubt after hearing his comments.
"That's the most positive thing I've heard from any politician in a decade," remarked Randy Kreil, North Dakota Game & Fish Department wildlife division chief.
"As far as CRP, I hope the governor is right. I don't see the future totally bleak,"said Darrell Nottestad, retired state representative, Grand Forks and a participant in the conference's initial panel discussion.
Kreil delivered an informative presentation detailing a history of license sales and wildlife populations in North Dakota. He noted that hunting seasons for sage grouse, prairie chickens and pronghorns have suffered closures, citing habitat loss and weather as reasons why. Looking ahead, he warned that the number of deer licenses available this fall would certainly be much fewer than what present-day hunters are accustomed to.
Some sportsmen are already advocating closure of the 2012 mule deer season due to low populations. The total number of deer licenses, which had topped 100,000, is widely expected to drop below 70,000 this year. The exact number will be determined following a series of Advisory Board meetings scheduled for later this month throughout the state and from input received by biologists in the field. The governor is expected to receive the Game & Fish Department 2012 proposal for deer season permits prior to the end of April.
The decision to completely close the 2012 deer season on the Fort Berthold Reservation was made at a full council meeting of the Three Affiliated Tribes March 22. According to Fred Poitra, TAT Game & Fish Director in New Town, normally about 1,000 deer tags are issued on the reservation.
"There's just so much oil activity in the Mandaree area and elsewhere," said Poitra. "With no snow we couldn't fly a deer count. Our wardens couldn't find any deer. A councilman who flew it said no deer season."
Mike McEnroe, North Dakota Wildlife Federation president, told the gathering, "North Dakota's hunting opportunities might be at a crossroads, or maybe in the crosshairs. Things are starting to change. We are looking at 3.4 million acres of CRP being removed from the landscape. We're looking at 6,000 wells now and 30 (thousand) to 60,000 more wells in the future."
McEnroe added that he was pleased to hear the views of Dalrymple but reminded the group that sportsmen must shake their traditional independence and become active on several fronts if they wish to help preserve North Dakota's hunting heritage.
"We've got to speak up and not remain silent," stated McEnroe. "All decisions are made by politicians. By our silence we condemn ourselves to some of the things we suffer. "
Terry Steinwand, state Game & Fish director, stressed that hunting includes access to the resource.
"The overall theme of this conference has to be providing a huntable resource," Steinwand said. "I emphasize, we do have challenges out there. What can we do to keep the heritage going?"
A suggestion brought forward by Bill Creighton, Viginia, Council to Advance Hunting and Shooting Sports, was to make an effort to get more people involved in hunting.
"We've seen a steady decline in the number of hunters in the United States," said Creighton. "Hunters are customers. It is your voice the legislators listen to. That is so important."
Creighton reminded the sportsmen that 11 percent of all hunting and fishing gear sales are dedicated to hunting and fishing conservation, habitat and education. As for where more hunters may come from, Creighton offered this advice.
"The shooting industry is going through the roof. We need to move the shooters over to hunting," said Creighton.
Throughout the course of the conference a recurring theme was heard habitat is the key to maintaining wildlife.
"That habitat carpet is being pulled out from every wildlife species in North Dakota," claimed McEnroe.
"Habitat ebb and flow, weather and habitat is very, very critical," agreed Kreil.
Kevin Kading, state Game & Fish private lands program section leader, updated the gathering on the status of PLOTS and other land programs. Kading emphasized that PLOTS was only intended to be a supplement to habitat lost to fragmentation from energy development. As to the future of CRP, Kading said the department did not know what the future would bring, only that he remains concerned thousands of acres could be lost.
"Without habitat we wouldn't need access. There wouldn't be any wildlife out there. Hunters will have to adapt," said Kading.
At the conclusion of the two-day conference, attendees were asked to prioritize what they felt was most important to maintaining a future for hunting in North Dakota.
The first two answers were predictable protect habitat and maintain access. Organizers say a second conference may be held later this year.