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Poor deer, pheasant numbers 'first taste of things to come'

Audience members listen to North Dakota Game and Fish officials speak during a public input meeting Nov. 30 in Casselton. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

The message from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to hunters is clear: do not expect a quick turnaround from this year's low deer and pheasant numbers.

In fact, for people who love the outdoors and hunting, the "good old days" may be right now, especially if current trends continue.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has been harping about the loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres for years, and their message was no different during a public input meeting Nov. 30 in Casselton.

By next fall, hunters may witness those predictions in full force.

During the meeting, officials with the state Game and Fish were inundated with concerns mainly focused on two animals: deer and coyotes - the former because of their dwindling numbers, and the latter because of their population explosion.

For many in the audience, the cause and effect was linear and clear. There are a lot more coyotes around now than ever before, while whitetail and mule deer numbers are plummeting. Therefore, the pervasive carnivores were fingered as one of the main culprits. Frustration was high as to why the Game and Fish Department didn't consider them more as a factor when issuing deer tags. This year, they dropped deer licenses to roughly 110,000, a decrease of approximately 7,000 tags from 2010.

The drop still wasn't enough, however, according to some audience members.

But figuring in coyotes' impact is not that simple, Deputy Director Roger Rostvet said.

"We don't know if their impact is two percent or 10 percent," he said. "We just don't know."

The Game and Fish issues licenses based on known assumptions, he said. For instance, if the state is hit by a tough winter, such as those from the past three years, biologists factor the impact on deer numbers at 30 percent. Total deer licenses are determined by harvest rates, aerial surveys, deer-vehicle collision reports, depredation reports, hunter observations, input at advisory board meetings, and comments from the public, landowners and department field staff.

Based on this year's hunting reports, and other factors, hunters can expect even less tags next season.

"Probably less than 100,000 tags, with a majority of the cuts in antlerless tags," Rostvet said.

In actuality, the low deer numbers are the result of perfect timing. The poor weather, combined with the Game and Fish issuing a record amount of antlerless tag, precipitated into the lowest deer numbers in recent years.

The bigger picture

And while Rostvet admitted coyotes undoubtedly have some impact on deer, the greater concern ought to be for habitat, or the lack thereof.

Because of the poor economy and an increasing federal debt, some of the first areas cut happen to come in the areas of conservation. North Dakota already has lost hundreds of thousands of acres of CRP, and stands to lose an additional 800,000 in 2012.

Hunters were warned about low numbers of pheasants and deer this fall, largely because of three harsh winters and another wet spring. But even if ideal conditions occur in the future, game populations may not rebound accordingly without viable habitat.

According to Rostvet, this fall was "the first taste of things to come."

As much as the Game and Fish would like to supplement the loss of CRP somehow, they simply do not have the budget, officials said. North Dakota had federal budget of $100 million a year for CRP acres, which has been significantly cut. In comparison, the state's Private Lands Open to Sportsman budget is $11 million on a biannual basis.

And it isn't the landowners fault for not keeping land fallow even without the payments, Rostvet said. In fact, "there are a lot of folks who want to keep their land in CRP, but ... they simply can't afford to do that."

One official went as far as to say that, from a business sense, farmers would be remiss not plant every available acre because the price of crash crops currently are so high.

"It just doesn't make sense not to," he said.

But what can be done about the loss of CRP and the low pheasant and deer numbers? Given the circumstances, not a lot, officials said.

As far as deer numbers and licenses, one option brought forward by audience members at the meeting was to take bow hunters into a greater account. Currently, North Dakota offers limitless archery licenses over the counter. Last year, approximately 16,000 residents received bow tags, compared to 2,800 nonresidents.

Rostvet said that archery success has grown sharply in recent years, which may factor more into deer harvest rates than it used to.

"Historically, archery success was around 20 percent. Now it's over 40 percent," he said. "Is there a way to reduce archery success back to normal raters?"

Options discussed may be to compress the archery season, which currently runs Sept. 2 through Jan. 8. In contrast, the firearm season, unarguably the state's most popular hunting season, only spans a little more than two weeks. Granted the harvest percentage of gun hunters greatly outnumbers that of both archery and muzzleloader hunters combined, but as deer populations drop, all aspects of hunting impact will need to be factored in, officials said.

Some bright spots

Not everything in North Dakota's outdoors is gloom and doom, however. Fisheries Division Chief Greg Powers said there is no better time to hit the state's ponds, lakes and rivers than right now.

"We have more water now than probably when the last glaciers melted," he said. "The eastern two-thirds of the state are saturated."

Regulations will continue to be "simple and straight forward," he said, and there are plans to loosen laws on northern pike.

For starters, the current daily limit will be raised from three fish to five fish across the state, and all lakes except those stocked with muskies will be open to winter spearing. With so many ponds and lakes teaming with northern, the state has an over abundance of the fish.

"We have no reason not to have a five-fish pike limit," Powers said.

If for some reason pike numbers begin to drop in the future, however, the Game and Fish likely would reel in the liberal bag limits. For now, the opportunity is out there for fishermen to fill their freezers and stock up on pickled pike.

The reason for the Game and Fish's public input meetings is to help gauge concerns from sportsmen when considering the next year's regulations. And while there was reason for concern in some aspects of this fall's hunt, there are still many areas of the state that are bounding with outdoor opportunities.

It's just a matter of sportsmen and women getting out there to find them.

Shoberg can be reached at 701-451-5717 or