North Dakota deer hunting licenses inch closer to new goal

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The number of deer hunting licenses being offered in North Dakota this year is up slightly for a third straight year, inching closer to state wildlife officials’ goal of having 75,000 licenses by 2020.

The Game and Fish Department approved 55,150 licenses for the 2018 season, just 1 percent more than last year. However, licenses have risen 27 percent from the recent low of 43,275 in 2015, when they bottomed out after seven straight years of decline.

The rise is due to a rebounding of the white-tailed deer population around the state from a recent oil boom and three straight harsh winters beginning in 2009. Western mule deer, which saw fawn production drop to record lows after the bad winters, also have started to bounce back.

“The last couple of years we’ve been in good recovery mode with mule deer,” state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said. “There’s been a pretty significant population recovery in most areas, where we need to start increasing (licenses).”

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Game and Fish has done just that, with a big chunk of the 650 additional licenses this year being for mule deer, both bucks and does.

Hunting of mule deer does was banned for four straight seasons beginning in 2012, and in 2016 it was allowed in only five of eight western hunting units. That boosted recovery, though deer in unit 4A in the Watford City area are still struggling. No hunting of mule deer does is being allowed there for the seventh consecutive year.

Deer hunting licenses in North Dakota surpassed 100,000 for 11 straight years beginning in 2001, peaking at 149,400 in 2008. Since then, habitat has declined, largely due to farmers putting idled grassland back into crop production, leading to the new target of 75,000 annual licenses.

“Achieving that in the long term comes down to habitat, it comes down to additional grass on the landscape, additional trees,” Williams said.

Whether that occurs depends largely on conservation programs in the next federal farm bill, he said.

“We deal with landowners who express interest in these conservation programs, but right now they’re maxed out, they’re capped,” Williams said.

Weather also will continue to impact the deer population, particularly with mule deer, whose range was hit hard by drought last summer.

“Rangeland conditions are in tough shape in the Badlands due to drought conditions, and could have a negative impact on fawn production this summer,” said Bruce Stillings, big game management supervisor for Game and Fish.

North Dakota’s 2018 deer gun season opens at noon on Nov. 9 and runs through Nov. 25. The deadline to apply for a license is June 6.

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