North Dakota deer season preview: Deer numbers, gun season licenses trending in right direction

Western North Dakota has seen the biggest increase in deer numbers, but populations in the eastern part of the state also are improving. Game and Fish sets tag numbers based on factors such as population surveys and the previous year’s hunting success.

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Deer populations and gun licenses are trending in the right direction in North Dakota, but whether the department can reach its five-year goal of offering 75,000 tags by 2020 remains to be seen. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

GRAND FORKS — Deer populations and license numbers in much of North Dakota are on the increase and moving in the right direction, a trend that bodes well for deer hunters this fall.

North Dakota’s deer gun season opens at noon CST on Friday, Nov. 8.

“Obviously, from our tag numbers and the increase we had this year, we feel a little bit better about the opportunities out on the landscape as far as overall deer numbers go, which equates to more opportunities for the public,” said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

Game and Fish this year offered 65,500 deer gun tags, up from 55,150 in 2018 and the highest number since 2012, Williams said.


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Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department director.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Western North Dakota has seen the biggest increase in deer numbers, but populations in the eastern part of the state also are improving, he said. Game and Fish sets tag numbers based on factors such as population surveys and the previous year’s hunting success.

Deer gun licenses bottomed out at 43,275 in 2015, largely the result of consecutive severe winters from 2009 through 2011, and have been on a gradual climb ever since.

“We know the last handful of years, we’ve been pretty conservative trying to bolster the deer population, so we’ve been conservative with deer tags,” Williams said. “Last year, we felt, was a good opportunity to jump those numbers up, so we took about a 10,000 (license) increase in the number of tags vs. previous years.”

Still, Game and Fish is likely to fall short of its five-year goal of 75,000 deer gun licenses while maintaining the 70% success rate that is the benchmark for deer hunters in the state, Williams said. Next year will be the fifth and final year in the goal process, he said, at which time the department will re-evaluate those goals.

North Dakota hunters last year shot 31,350 deer during the gun season for a success rate of 64 percent, statistics from the Game and Fish Department show.

“We know there’s still an issue or problem with supply and demand out there when it comes to deer hunting, but we’re going in a positive direction and so we feel good about that,” Williams said. “If we get a nice, mild winter and things continue to improve out there, it’s certainly likely that we can increase licenses again.

“But will we get to that 75,000 mark? I guess if I had to guesstimate right now, I’d say probably not.”


As in neighboring Minnesota, widespread wet conditions could play into deer hunting success in many parts of North Dakota. Farmers are beginning to get back into their fields after a delayed harvest season, and hunters can expect plenty of harvest activity in the farm country where much of the state’s deer hunting occurs.

Game and Fish on Wednesday, Oct. 30, issued a news release asking hunters to be courteous and give a wide berth to approaching farm machinery and avoid blocking access to farmers’ fields when accessing hunting areas.

“There’s going to be a lot of harvest going on still during deer season — just a lot of activity going on — and there are a lot of folks out there that have been pretty stressed this fall as far as the ability or lack of ability to be able to get to their crops,” Williams said.

CWD testing

Game and Fish will sample deer for chronic wasting disease this fall where the disease has been confirmed in units 3F2 in south-central North Dakota and 3A1 and 3B1 in the northwest part of the state. In addition, northeast North Dakota is on the schedule for rotational surveillance, and hunters in the Grand Forks area are encouraged to drop off deer heads at the Grand Forks Gun Club, 6950 Gateway Drive, where the UND chapter of The Wildlife Society will oversee a collection site for the department.

Testing is voluntary even in the CWD-positive areas, but the department encourages hunters to participate and submit deer heads for sampling, Williams said.

“From our standpoint, the more heads that can be collected, the more tests that can be submitted and the more we know as an agency, which is our goal,” Williams said. “We know there’s a lot of hunters out there that are interested and concerned about CWD just from the standpoint of wanting to know if that animal is positive or negative before they can consume that animal, and so that’s something we know is a motivation for some people to test their deer and that’s fine; we’re glad to be able to accommodate that.”

North Dakota’s deer gun season continues through Sunday, Nov. 24.

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Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to



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