Commentary: ND deer hunters vent their frustrations at meeting

Officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department got an earful this week in Grand Forks from hunters frustrated with not being able to draw a deer gun tag in recent years.Some hunters said they've now gone more than five years without dra...

Officials from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department got an earful this week in Grand Forks from hunters frustrated with not being able to draw a deer gun tag in recent years.

Some hunters said they've now gone more than five years without drawing a gun season tag.

About 65 people, mostly middle-age-and-older men, filled the Red River Archers' indoor range Tuesday night for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's District 4 fall Advisory Board meeting. Game and Fish is mandated to hold the meetings twice a year in each of the state's eight Advisory Board districts.

District 4 covers Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh counties.

As in previous years, deer hunting discussion dominated the fall meeting, but the level of frustration some of the more vocal hunters expressed Tuesday night seemed higher than what I've heard in the previous 40 or so meetings I've attended in the past 20 years.

The Game and Fish Department traditionally aims to issue deer gun tags at a level that ensures a hunter success rate of 70 percent. Unfortunately, a series of three consecutive tough winters beginning in 2008, coupled with habitat loss and several previous years of aggressive harvest combined to drastically reduce deer populations.

Fewer deer on the landscape means the department has to issue fewer tags to maintain that 70 percent success rate.

"We would like to see more deer out on the landscape than what there is, but the only way to do that is habitat," said Terry Steinwand, Game and Fish director, who led Tuesday night's meeting with Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.

Providing more habitat will require hunters to contact their congressional delegation to encourage support for Farm Bill habitat provisions such as the federal Conservation Reserve Program, Steinwand said.

"In North Dakota, habitat matters," he said.

Finding a balance

Game and Fish this year offered 54,500 deer gun licenses. That's up from last year, a sign deer numbers are moving in the right direction, but it's still far below the mid-2000s, when more than 100,000 tags were available and supply often exceeded demand.

About 40,000 hunters applied for gun tags this year but didn't get drawn. Some people Tuesday night wondered if managing for a 70 percent hunter success rate still is realistic, given the difficulty in even drawing a tag.

"On the system we have, if you don't draw, you don't go," one hunter said. "I'm 69 years old and haven't drawn a tag in six years. If I draw one next year, I might as well sell the gun."

The point being, of course, that if he draws a license next year and then has to wait another six years, he might be too old to hunt. Whether he shoots a deer is immaterial, he said; to heck with 70 percent.

"I want to get hunting," he said. "If I don't get a deer, so be it. I like the opportunity, I'd like to be able to take my granddaughter or my grandson."

Not all hunters share that sentiment, and Steinwand said the department hears about it when success rates fall below 70 percent.

Based on Tuesday night's discussion, at least, hunters fortunate enough to draw tags were mostly satisfied with the number of deer they've seen this fall, but many of those unable to draw tags said the state's deer hunting tradition is being lost.

"Who's going to get together if the six guys who hunted together for 10 years have one tag?" one hunter asked. "It's more than I'm not getting a tag or we're not getting tags. The deer hunting tradition is being killed."

Big reductions

Responding to criticism the department issues too many doe tags, Williams, the wildlife chief, said Game and Fish in 2008 offered 9,000 antlerless tags in Unit 2C, a unit in far northeast North Dakota north of U.S. Highway 2. This year, 300 antlerless tags were available in 2C, he said.

"The majority of the state where our reduction is coming has been in the antlerless segment, so I think we have done that," Williams said. "Now, whether you want to say we should have had 9,000 tags back in 2008, that's a different subject, but at that time, there were many people in this room that said 'Yeah, we should; we should sell more.'

"We have drastically reduced the number of licenses in pretty much all these units, and that's also some frustration now. Now you can't get a license. So which one do we want?"

As for the future, the best the department can do, Williams said, is be conservative with licenses while relying on Mother Nature and efforts to encourage the conservation of wildlife habitat.

When CRP was at its 3.5 million-acre peak in North Dakota, the federal government paid out $130 million in annual payments to landowners, Williams said. By comparison, the Game and Fish Department's entire two-year budget is $75 million.

There's only so much the department can do for habitat, in other words.

"We're not going to get back to levels people would like," Williams said of deer and license numbers. "Is this what we're going to have to get used to? At this point in time, yes. I get it, we're not meeting the public's expectations."