The 2012 deer season will be unlike any other, unless you were a participant in 1988. The number of deer licenses available this year is 65,300, the fewest since that year.
For the past several years a popular saying among hunters, especially those with many years in the field, was "the good old days are here now." We heard it, and maybe laughed, maybe wondered, but didn't really want to believe it. We were too busy stuffing our hunting vests with rooster pheasants and filling our freezers with venison. No more. Nope, not for a while. Perhaps a long while.
The availability of fewer deer licenses is said to be the result of three nasty winters prior to this past one, and an aggressive effort to reduce deer numbers in order to meet management goals. The two realities crossed paths rather harshly, a somewhat unforeseen circumstance. North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists have responded in the only way possible - a reduction in the number of deer licenses for 2012. Biologists can't do anything about the weather.
What our pheasant this fall will look like remains to be seen. The number of pheasants was quite low in many areas of the state last year. A plus is that pheasant numbers can rebound quickly, if there are enough nesting birds to get the job done and if they are successful in bringing off broods. Favorable weather is very important too.
Pheasants will start hatching in June. Brood surveys will follow. Numbers gathered then will give us a reasonably accurate idea of what to expect for this fall's season. I am not expecting anything close to the numbers we had a few years ago. I'd also be delighted to be proven wrong. Let's hope we get lucky and all our upland birds do well.
While harsh winters and harvest certainly play an unquestioned role in wildlife populations, there is a couple of other major factors exerting influence on North Dakota's wildlife - energy activity and loss of habitat. Oil activity has taken a stranglehold on key wildlife areas throughout western North Dakota. Although how much remains to be seen, Conservation Reserve Acres have been declining too. Neither were a factor in 1988.
Our state's wildlife is facing an uncertain future, particularly in the west. Some birds and animals don't readily adjust to changes, not a good situation in the midst of today's fast-paced development. Of course, without habitat, none of that matters.
CRP has provided a great boost for North Dakota's wildlife, fur and feathers. Biologists tell us that less CRP means less wildlife. There is no arguing that. There is substantial data that draws a clear correlation between CRP and increased wildlife populations. So, the question becomes, is it even possible for our deer and pheasant numbers to rebound to the high levels of a few short years ago? To put it more bluntly, with less room to live, how can they?
I've asked that question to those much more qualified to answer it than I. I've listened to the professionals and have heard their doubts and concerns. I'm an admitted pessimist on this subject, partially because I've seen the negative impact on some of my favorite hunting areas, but it is not difficult to find other hunters who have experienced the same and share the same views.
I grew up hunting sharptails in western North Dakota, often in the company of my father and grandfather. Grandpa grew up hunting prairie chickens and witnessed their disappearance. I recall picking up a downed sharptail during a hunt near the White Earth Valley late one morning and hearing my grandpa say, "enjoy it while you can." At the time I thought he was talking about my youth versus his age, but he wasn't. He was thinking about the era when the prairie chickens succumbed to changes on the landscape.
Dad often said the same thing, "enjoy it while you can." I don't think I fully understood exactly what he meant at the time, but I do now. In those years there was always a place to hunt and ample game to be found. It was much different than it is today.
North Dakota is a pretty big place and wildlife can be quite resilient. That is a good thing. It is not all doom and gloom for sportsmen, even if it sometimes never seems very far away. If our mule deer, white-tailed deer and upland game numbers increase in the coming years it will be wonderful. I hope that is what happens. I wish for that to happen.
I may be selfish, foolish, or both, but I liked things better the way they were. I also hope hunters in years to come will be able to say, "enjoy it while you can."