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North Dakota deer gun season to have fewer hunters

November 01, 2012 at 02:21 PM

The Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — This week, slightly more than 65,000 people will take to the fields for the North Dakota deer gun opener.

What’s significant about the opener this year is last year. In 2011, there were 110,000 hunters who had licenses for the deer gun season.

Hunters — and wildlife biologists alike — will find out after the Friday opener if last year’s mild winter helped the deer population rebound in the state.

The deer population is still reeling from three consecutive brutal winters from 2008-10 that knocked back numbers across North Dakota. Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said those three winters resulted in a lot of adult mortality in deer coupled with low fawn production the following springs. Adult does were stressed because of heavy snow and poor physical condition.

Kreil said the circumstances created a perfect storm of sorts for deer.

Those three winters came on the heels of a decade of aggressive management practices that allowed hunters in some cases to draw three or more tags during the same gun season. Kreil said it wasn’t that many years ago when the number of available deer licenses in the state approached 150,000.

“We heard loud and clear from landowners, the motoring public and others that was too many deer,” he said.

The first concurrent season was in deer hunting unit 2F1 near Cooperstown, Kreil said. He said there was no way to squeeze more hunters into the small unit, so the Game and Fish Department offered multiple tags to hunters in an effort to control the population.

It will be a different deer gun season for many hunters, or no season at all.

A year ago, there were about 99,000 resident applications for a license in the first lottery drawing. With no extra tags available this year, that means more than 30,000 people didn’t draw into a license at all.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a bad season. There are a number of factors at play that work in hunters’ favor.

“The winter of 2011 was just what the doctor ordered,” Kreil said, in terms of there being more deer on the landscape.

Kreil said there was little mortality over last winter because of the mild weather, so does went into the spring in good physical condition.

The early spring helped farmers get into the fields early and that means a lot of row crops such as corn and sunflowers have come off the fields and into the grain bins earlier than in recent years.

Another challenge for whitetails came in the summer of 2011 with an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, in western counties. More than 13,000 hunters with whitetail tags in 11 units were eligible for refunds on the licenses because of the outbreak.

This year, several states like South Dakota and Nebraska are reporting similar EHD outbreaks, but North Dakota whitetail have not been affected.

The units affected had higher numbers of whitetails than management goals and biologists say their numbers are looking good for this year.

Whitetails are fairly adaptable when it comes to finding new food sources in necessary because of weather and other factors, but that is not the case with mule deer. Mule deer are limited when it comes to their home range and diet and are longer on the comeback trail than are their whitetail counterparts.

The three bad winters put a substantial dent in mulie fawn production. The fawn-per-doe ratio of 0.59, in 2011, was a record low in North Dakota.

The long-term average for mule deer fawn production in the Badlands is 0.93.

Another factor working against mule deer is the increased oil activity in western North Dakota.

Bruce Stillings, big game management supervisor for Game and Fish in Dickinson, said the combination of winter mortality and low production led to a population of five mule deer per square mile in this year’s spring survey — 23 percent below the 2011 index and 33 percent below the long-term average.

As a result, no mule deer licenses were issued this year in eight Badlands hunting units. Just 1,200 mule deer buck licenses were available for this season, 3,350 fewer than a year ago.

It’s not an unprecedented situation for mule deer. Following the winter of 1996-97, one of the worst in North Dakota, mulie numbers took a major nosedive.

In 1998, the number of mule deer buck licenses was cut by 22 percent and the number of doe licenses by 39 percent.

Things have changed in the Badlands. Oil exploration is on the rise, as are predators like mountain lions. Rocky Mountain junipers also are on the increase. The junipers out-compete other vegetation more beneficial to mule deer, further fragmenting the animals’ habitat.

Next year, Game and Fish will launch a five-year cooperative study to examine the effects the changes in western North Dakota are having on mule deer.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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