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Doug Leier: Wildlife needs all those hunters

After nearly 10 years as a biologist and game warden in the conservation field, I've found that the general public usually underestimates the role of hunting as part of wildlife management. In fact, some hunters even fail to appreciate their valu...

After nearly 10 years as a biologist and game warden in the conservation field, I've found that the general public usually underestimates the role of hunting as part of wildlife management. In fact, some hunters even fail to appreciate their valuable role.

Hunting is an enjoyable activity with a deep-seated tradition and a presence in human instinct. Humans have always hunted. Even today, some cultures depend on hunting to provide at least part of their diet.

In much of this country, while hunting is no longer absolutely necessary so we can eat, millions of people enjoy eating healthy wild game. While I can buy all the meat my family needs at the local grocery store, a shopping trip just doesn't bring the same satisfaction as a hunting trip. I like the feeling that, in a frontier settler sort of way, I am providing food for my family.

Hunting is, however, more than a means for recreation and bringing home the ingredients for excellent meals. In a broad sense, hunters are largely responsible for creating the wildlife management field, and hunting today is valuable tool for wildlife managers.

Hunting's importance to wildlife management is never more evident than during the regular deer gun season in North Dakota, which began last Friday.


The North Dakota Game and Fish Department estimates that more than 80,000 different hunters, with more than 120,000 licenses, will go afield during the 16½-day season. With an overall success rate of about 75 percent, department biologists hope around 90,000 deer are taken. Why is this important?

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the changes man has made that shift the balance of nature. White-tailed deer are a prime example. Historically, white-tailed deer were a limited commodity in North Dakota. In fact, less than 30 years ago half the current number of deer tags were available.

Seventy-five years ago, North Dakota didn't have enough whitetails to hold any hunting season. That was the situation early wildlife managers faced -- a deer population decimated by market hunters, and settlers who hunted deer without restriction because they needed them for food.

More than a century ago, most North Dakota white-tailed deer were found in tree-lined river bottoms. Grass-covered prairies offered little in the way of food sources or protection from winter weather.

That all started to change when settlers started converting the prairie to cropland and planting trees for farmstead shelterbelts and to control erosion on crop fields. The new crops provided a food source and trees meant protection.

It didn't happen over night, but over the course of a hundred years, with carefully managed hunting seasons, whitetails have filled nearly every little habitat niche where they might have a chance to survive.

Winter weather has always been a factor that limits deer population growth. After bad winters deer numbers are down because some animals die and productivity the following spring is reduced. Deer numbers go up after mild winters because mortality is low and productivity is not reduced.

So now, after several mild winters in a row, we have a white-tailed deer population that is probably at an all-time high, which is perhaps too high given the potential for a severe winter. During difficult winters, when natural food sources are buried under snow, deer are attracted to farms and livestock feed supplies such as hay or silage. Even then, a significant number of deer die during difficult winters.


Most farmers and ranchers don't mind a couple of deer taking a daily snack from a haystack, but they don't care to feed dozens or even hundreds. That could happen, however, in all corners of the state, if hunting was not part of the mix.

To bring the deer population into balance with the potential for a devastating winter, the success of hunters, especially doe hunters, is important to biologists. That's why the Game and Fish Department has issued a record number of licenses for the third consecutive year.

While most hunters consider an antlerless license as somewhat less desirable than a buck license, that doe tag is critical to wildlife management. As North Dakota's deer season progresses, hunters filling those antlerless tags are vital to a balanced deer population.

The best part is, in addition to playing the role of wildlife manager, hunters get to enjoy the excellent table fare that comes with a filled antlerless deer license.

Leier, a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at (701) 277-0719 or at dleier@state.nd.us

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