Hunter success in the deer gun season was down in 2013. So too was the number of deer and deer gun licenses. Now, for the 2014 season, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department says another cut in licenses is necessary.
It is an alarming trend triggered by a number of factors, among them a series of tough winters, loss of habitat, energy development and even over-harvest in some hunting zones. Game and Fish has announced that 48,000 deer gun licenses will be available to hunters and landowners later this year. It is a reduction of 11,500 licenses from a year ago. The amount of licenses available is set following analysis of deer surveys.
"I think the vast majority of deer hunters in the state understand what we're doing and why we are reducing deer licenses," said Randy Kreil, NDG&F wildlife division chief. "Reducing deer licenses is only one part of the solution to the challenge we're facing. A more important part is trying to maintain a habitat base that will support deer populations and other wildlife species at levels people have been accustomed to."
Fewer deer hunters will likely be in the field in 2014 due to a declining deer population.
Achieving former levels of wildlife populations in North Dakota is a lofty goal, one that many outdoorsmen don't think is possible. Mild winters and a lighter harvest may help increase deer numbers in some areas of the state, but in the west where energy development and loss of habitat continues at an unprecedented rate, a return to the "good old days" of a few years ago seems highly improbable.
"We can be realistic but we can't be pessimistic," said Kreil. "If we are unsuccessful in maintaining a habitat base, then the future for hunting in this state is in jeopardy."
Wildlife populations have seen dramatic highs and lows in years past, but conditions on the landscape in North Dakota today differ greatly from what they were a few short years ago. At best, the future of much of the state's wildlife is uncertain.
White-tailed deer are known to be very resilient and prone to large population swings, making whitetails as good a bet as any to make a surprising comeback. Mule deer trends develop much more slowly than whitetails. Once again this year, the state's mule deer season will be closed. It is the second straight year for the closure. Hunters will be able to apply for lottery-issued mule deer buck tags.
A key factor for reducing the total amount of deer licenses this year is the hunter success rate. Game and Fish has set 70 percent as their preferred goal. Deer hunter success was 63 percent in 2012 and dropped to 55 percent in 2013.
Recognizing that the state's deer herd was in decline, along with hunter success, Game and Fish held a series of public meetings at eight locations in the state this past February. The meetings were held to keep deer hunters informed and to solicit their input in formulating possible changes in upcoming deer seasons. If it is deemed necessary, additional changes to the state's deer gun and archery seasons could be implemented in 2015.
"Our director has told us he'd like a recommendation for his consideration about the first of July," said Kreil. "We're still wading through comments, categorizing them and still searching for new ideas or variations of ideas."
Last year, about 26,000 deer gun applicants did not receive licenses. The number is likely to be even larger in 2014.