There will be a few more hunters in the field this fall for North Dakota's deer gun season, but demand continues to outpace supply, a trend that isn't likely to reverse itself anytime soon.
North Dakota's 16½-day deer gun season opens at noon Friday, Nov. 4.
Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said white-tailed deer numbers south and west of the Missouri River are "pretty good," and mule deer numbers in the west continue to rebound.
Farther east, the whitetail outlook is less favorable.
"There are pockets of good deer numbers throughout" the Missouri Coteau region, Jensen said. "I think in the eastern third of North Dakota and the Red River Valley, numbers are still kind of down."
Game and Fish this year offered 49,000 deer gun tags, a slight increase from last year, when only 43,275 licenses were available-the lowest since 1978-and 48,000 tags in 2014. More than 102,000 people applied for deer gun, muzzleloader, youth and landowner tags, and more than 51,000 were unsuccessful, Game and Fish said.
Long gone are the days when Game and Fish offered nearly 150,000 tags in an effort to reduce deer numbers. Mother Nature and habitat loss are behind much of the decline, and deer populations struggle to rebound in some areas, despite two relatively benign winters.
"I think the real effect of habitat loss, CRP, wetlands and tree rows is going to come into play the next time we have a hard winter," Jensen said. "That's going to be a telling tale."
Putting the scenario into a human context, Jensen equates the situation to someone trying to live on the street during a northern winter.
"You can get by on the street most of the year, but when it gets 40-below, living in the alley in a box is not going to make it," Jensen said. "With all the drain tiling going in and tree rows coming out, things are changing. And it is what it is. You can't argue with the landowner-it's his prerogative to take out tree rows, but it has an effect.
"Winter is the driver in reducing deer numbers, but it's habitat that brings it back."
Nowhere is the trend more apparent than in eastern North Dakota hunting units. In Unit 2B, an area south of U.S. Highway 2 that borders the Red River on the east, Game and Fish this year offered 1,000 antlered tags and 700 antlerless permits.
In 2007, by comparison, 6,500 doe tags alone were available in 2B, not to mention a similar number of buck tags.
Last year, a total of 39,470 North Dakota deer hunters took about 26,700 deer during the gun season for a success rate of nearly 68 percent. Ideally, Jensen said, Game and Fish would like to see deer numbers build to the point where the department could offer 75,000 deer gun licenses and maintain the 70 percent success rate that has become a benchmark for North Dakota deer hunting.
That would give most hunters the opportunity to go afield during the deer gun season and keep deer populations within the limits of landowner tolerance, he said.
"If you look at long-term trends for each unit and what that unit historically has been able to produce, we're losing habitat in a lot of these units," Jensen said. "White-tailed deer are pretty elastic, and they're able to tolerate a lot, but they've got to have some habitat.
"They might be able to produce fawns, but you've got to get them through the winter, too, for those female fawns to be recruited into the population."
Lack of snow, which is essential for spotting deer from the air, has prevented Game and Fish from conducting aerial population surveys the past couple of winters. That has forced Game and Fish to look at other data, such as hunter success, in setting license numbers. The department also sends questionnaires to hunters in each unit just before season asking them to report the number and kind of deer they see during opening weekend.
"That provides some trend data," Jensen said. "It's not perfect, but it's what we have available."
Overall, Jensen said, this fall's North Dakota deer outlook is a mixed bag.
"There are places in the state where deer numbers are pretty good, and then other places that need to be brought along," he said.