North Dakota's deer licensing system presents a challenge with no easy solution as it relates to retaining hunters after they turn 16.
I thought about that the other day after the North Dakota Game and Fish Department sent out a news release announcing the limited doe permits that remained after the deer gun lottery had been sold.
With only 49,000 deer gun licenses available statewide, that came as no surprise.
Even though about 5,500 more permits were available this year than last, deer license numbers in North Dakota are down drastically from the early to mid 2000s, when Game and Fish was under the gun from state lawmakers to reduce deer populations.
In 2005, for example, the department offered more than 145,000 gun licenses, and hunters could buy as many leftover doe tags as they wanted in units where antlerless tags remained.
They couldn't sell enough licenses.
These days, that's almost hard to comprehend. But at the same time, 145,000 licenses meant there were more deer-and more hunters-than the state's landscape could support.
The challenge, then, is trying to find a happy medium, that elusive swing of the pendulum where deer numbers are high enough to accommodate more tags and happy hunters, but not so high they cause widespread problems for motorists and landowners.
That's a tough one.
Look through the Grand Forks Herald's online Trophy Room gallery, and you'll see photos showing young hunters who were successful at shooting a deer during North Dakota's 9½-day youth deer season that ended Sept. 25.
In North Dakota, hunters 15 and younger have the opportunity to get two licenses; 11- to 13-year-olds can get an antlerless whitetail license, and 13- to 15-year-olds can get a youth license that allows them to shoot any whitetail. In addition, a limited number of antlerless mule deer licenses are available for the Badlands.
Bottom line is those young hunters have the opportunity to get a deer gun tag..
That's the way it should be.
The problem arises when they turn 16. Given the long odds of drawing a gun license in North Dakota these days, how do you keep them interested if they consistently fail to draw a tag in the lottery?
Archery is an option, of course, but it's not for everyone.
Between sports, school activities and social media, young people have plenty of other ways to spend their time. If they can't draw a deer tag, they'll find something else to do, and perhaps never hunt again.
What does that mean for the future? Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said the answer isn't as simple as offering more deer licenses.
"I know a lot of our deer hunters are Baby Boomers, and they're going to be aging out, and that concerns me," Jensen said. "I'll be retiring before it's a real problem, but my general concern is about the future."
Hunters might say they don't care if they shoot a deer and just want the opportunity to hunt, but North Dakota's open landscape isn't conducive to issuing gun licenses over the counter like in Minnesota or Wisconsin, Jensen says.
"You give someone a license, the probability is they're going to kill a deer more often than not, and with deer being so vulnerable to the gun in North Dakota with only 4 percent forest, you simply can't do that," Jensen said. "There's the desires of the hunter you have to be cognizant of, but you can't finesse the biology, either."
At the same time, he said, hunters are the best tool for managing deer.
"If deer populations get away from you, the only way you can control them is with a gun or let disease or hard winters take them," Jensen said. "And that isn't any way to manage them, either."
Jensen said a deer population that's high enough to accommodate about 75,000 licenses and a 70 percent success rate should maintain hunter opportunities and keep landowners happy.
Tall order, perhaps, but not impossible if deer numbers continue trending in the right direction.
Here's hoping that happens, and Jensen is right. Without continued opportunities for young hunters once they turn 16, the state's deer hunting tradition could be seriously diminished.
That would be unfortunate on many levels.