Limited antelope season possible in southwest ND: Numbers have recovered, Game and Fish is considering a limited hunting season
FINLEY — The state Game and Fish Department is considering a limited antelope season in southwest North Dakota this year, but officials won’t make a decision until July population surveys are completed.
Game and Fish last offered an antelope season in 2009 and closed the season the next year after three tough winters from 2008 through 2010 resulted in the population falling 74 percent.
According to Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, antelope numbers in the Western Bowman and Southern Badlands management regions again are approaching the lower end of population objectives, while numbers in the Northern Badlands and Slope regions remain far below goal.
The season, if it’s offered, would be limited to hunting units south of Interstate 94 and west of North Dakota Highway 8, Kreil said.
“If the weather stays decent this spring, and we have a good fawn crop, which we’ll know in July, there’s a good chance of a limited season south of I-94,” he said.
The possible return of an antelope season was a key item on the agenda Monday night in Finley, where Game and Fish hosted the District 5 meeting on the department’s spring advisory board circuit. Game and Fish is mandated to hold the meetings twice a year in each of the state’s eight advisory board districts.
Kreil said it’s too early to say how many antelope licenses would be available, but it likely would be at least 100 in each open unit. That would provide opportunities for hunters to draw a license after gratis landowner tags are allocated. For antelope, landowners have dibs on the first 50 licenses in every unit and 50 percent of all remaining licenses, Kreil said.
“If you only had 50 licenses in a unit, all 50 could go to landowners,” he said. “And we try to avoid landowner-only seasons.”
Unlike previous antelope hunts, there wouldn’t be a separate archery season, and as a result, no nonresident archery licenses, Kreil said. Instead, there’d be a single lottery, and hunters who drew a tag could take one pronghorn of any sex in either the archery or gun seasons within a specific unit.
Hunting would be archery only from Aug. 29 to Sept. 28, while hunters could go afield with either a bow or a gun from Oct. 3 through Oct. 19; archery antelope hunters would have to wear blaze orange in October, Kreil said.
Archery licenses were available over the counter in earlier seasons, but Kreil said the antelope population isn’t high enough to support the number of bow hunters who took the field. From 1999 to 2009, archery licenses increased from 572 to 2,183 a decade later, Game and Fish statistics show.
After four years without a season and an increased number of people in western North Dakota because of the oil boom, the number of potential archery hunters is as least as high as it was five years ago.
“We could not turn 2,000 bow hunters loose south of I-94,” Kreil said.
Hunters with preference points wouldn’t lose those points if they decided not to apply, Kreil said, but hunters who applied and didn’t get drawn would build points.
Game and Fish estimated the 2013 antelope population at about 5,300, a 49 percent increase from 2012. Despite the gain, antelope numbers still lag far behind the early to mid-2000s, when surveys tallied 10,000 to as many as 15,000 antelope during a couple of those years.
Here’s a look at 2013 estimates and population objectives in each of North Dakota’s antelope management units:
Western Bowman: Estimate of 1,446 in 2013; population objective of 1,500 to 2,500.
Southern Badlands: Estimate of 1,068 in 2013; population objective of 1,500 to 2,500.
Northern Badlands: Estimate of 827; population objective of 1,500 to 2,500.
Slope: Estimate of 1,951; population objective of 3,000 to 4,000.
Deer update Kreil also offered an update on the recent deer management meetings the department held across the state to take input on how to fairly allocate hunting opportunities as deer populations continue to decline.
No changes are on tap for this year, Kreil said, and the department will wade through the hundreds of comments it received both during the meetings and online before deciding whether to change the way it allocates deer licenses in 2015.
“We want to make sure we get it right,” he said.
Kreil said Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand has requested recommendations from department staff by July.
In the meantime, Kreil said, Game and Fish this week will set the number of deer gun licenses it plans to offer this fall. It’s likely, he said, that numbers will be similar to last year, when the department offered 59,500 tags, the lowest since 1983, though some eastern North Dakota hunting units could have even fewer tags available than 2013.
Despite the long winter, there wasn’t much snow across most of the state, and adult deer mortality appears to be minimal. That improves prospects for good fawn production, Kreil said, although the continued loss of grassland and tree row habitat and fewer acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program will limit the potential for deer numbers to recover to mid-2000s levels.
“It was pretty easy to manage wildlife with 3.4 million acres of CRP and three or four nice winters,” Kreil said. “Now, everybody has to pitch in. We’re not about to throw in the towel — this is when the hard work starts.