WEST FARGO – As the sun sets on the 2015 deer gun season, the North Dakota State Game and Fish Department is already well into the process of thinking about next year and beyond.

Agency biologists and administrators are close to finalizing a new plan that will guide deer management for the next five years, with a goal of increasing the number of deer gun licenses available up to around 75,000, compared to about 43,000 allocated this year.

In an article in the November 2015 issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine, wildlife division chief Jeb Williams said that every five years the Game and Fish Department develops deer population goals for each of the state's 38 hunting units.

Williams said the plan is re-evaluated every five years because changes in the landscape, deer populations, deer hunter expectations and landowner tolerance levels go up and down. During the previous two five-year cycles, when the department made available more than 100,000 deer gun licenses, the management objective was to reduce deer numbers statewide.

"Looking back at North Dakota's long deer hunting history, allocating more than 100,000 licenses to hunters, which we did from 2001 through 2011, is the exception, not the rule," Williams said. "We went through a time when all the stars aligned and we had good habitat on the landscape and had several good winters, which proved to be a great recipe for building the state's deer herd.

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Based on the amount of wildlife habitat currently on the landscape, and the uncertainties of North Dakota's winter weather, Williams said a new plan for 75,000 licenses is a realistic expectation, but getting there won't happen overnight.

"The challenge in that is knowing that 75,000 licenses is not going to meet hunter expectations, but this is what we think is reasonable for a five-year plan and what the landscape can hold," he said. "If something would happen, like the weather cooperating this winter and next, and we start hitting our deer unit goals, we would continue to try to move that bar up."

In an effort to start rebuilding the state's deer population, Game and Fish has significantly reduced whitetail doe licenses, and has not issued any mule deer doe licenses for several years.

"The last couple of years, the majority of the license cuts have been in the eastern part of the state because of some tough winters and the habitat conditions have changed," Williams said.

In southwestern North Dakota, deer numbers continue to build, but Williams said a conservative management plan is needed in that part of the state as well.

"We have disease challenges down there with EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and CWD (chronic wasting disease)," he said. "Our plan is to manage that population at a lower level so we don't increase the chance of disease in that area. We don't want to build that population so that EHD rears its head and kills a bunch of deer."

Following some years of poor adult survival and fawn production, Williams said mule deer in the badlands are making some good strides. This fall, for the fourth season in a row, no antlerless mule deer licenses were issued in eight badlands hunting units.

"We are getting to the point, especially south of Interstate 94, that hunters will see mule deer doe hunting opportunities soon if the population continues to build," Williams said. "The Department gave some consideration to issuing mule deer doe licenses this year, but decided to stay on the conservative side."

Game and Fish administrators will discuss the five-year deer management plan at the upcoming fall round of advisory board meetings. Check the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov for information on meeting times and places.