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North Dakota bow season sets record

GRAND FORKS -- No immediate changes are on the horizon, but an increase in bow hunting participation and success could someday factor into deer management in North Dakota if the trend continues, a Game and Fish Department official says.

The Game and Fish Department announced last week that archery hunters last year shot an estimated 6,856 deer for a success rate of 35.4 percent -- an all-time high. The department issued 19,940 resident archery licenses and 2,336 nonresident bow licenses last year, which is 245 more than the previous record in 2010, the department said.

The harvest included 6,440 whitetails and 416 mule deer; about 71 percent of the whitetail harvest and 96 percent of the mule deer take was adult bucks.

The archery report comes on the heels of this year's deer gun lottery, in which some 44,000 deer hunters received the news they didn't draw a gun season tag. Game and Fish this year offered 59,500 deer gun licenses -- 5,800 fewer than last year and the lowest since 1983. By comparison, the department issued more than 145,000 licenses in 2004.

According to Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, the increase in archery hunters last fall wasn't a surprise, given the downtrend in gun licenses. Most archery licenses can be purchased over the counter.

"What was surprising to us was with the lowest deer numbers in 30 years, we had 35 percent success for archery," he said.

Game and Fish attributes the drop in deer numbers to three consecutive severe winters from 2009 to 2011, several years of aggressive harvest and loss of habitat.

Over the counter

Unlike rifle and muzzleloader licenses, there's no limit on the number of whitetail tags available to either resident or nonresident bow hunters. Nonresident "any deer" archery deer tags are set at 15 percent of the previous year's deer gun licenses.

Kreil attributes the uptick in bow hunting success to improved archery equipment and baiting, which remains legal on private land in North Dakota.

"We all know baiting has increased bow hunting success," he said. "Otherwise, people wouldn't be doing it."

Kreil, who was among the 44,000 hunters who didn't draw a deer gun tag this year, said rifle hunters for years have expressed concern about the guaranteed opportunities for bow hunters.

"It wasn't much of an issue when there were over 100,000 deer gun licenses, and people's desire for hunting opportunities were all met," he said. "When you drop to 59,000 licenses and you've got 44,000 people who are going to have to sit home during deer season, the topic of what is equitable distribution of hunting opportunity" becomes more prominent.

"(A bow hunter) might get two licenses in a year when someone else will go without any," Kreil said. "With low deer numbers, that conversation is going to be more commonplace."

Exploring options

If archery participation remains high and deer populations don't recover, Kreil said Game and Fish may have to take a closer look at bow hunting's impact on deer management. Bow hunting success historically has "bounced around" from the mid- to high 30 percent range down to the low 20 percent range, Kreil said.

"Bow hunters have had the luxury of being able to say, 'There's not many of us, success rates are low, and we're not much of a factor,' " Kreil said. "That may not be the case anymore."

Ironically, Kreil said, the biggest response to the recent bow hunting report has come from archery hunters who question the numbers. Game and Fish estimates bow hunting success with a random survey it mails to archery license holders, the same way it measures rifle and muzzleloader success.

"I've heard from several people who say they're not sure the survey is right," Kreil said. "But the survey is not flawed. It's the same survey we've used for years that they've been satisfied with, so nothing's changed but the numbers, and the numbers make them uncomfortable."

Kreil said department staff has talked about options for changing the archery season and the system for buying licenses, should that become necessary, but nothing would happen without an extensive public input process.

"We haven't identified a 'tipping point,' if you will," Kreil said. "We would much prefer to see deer populations rebound and meet everyone's needs."

With the loss of habitat from border to border, that might not be realistic.

"It would be a very involved process," Kreil said. "You just don't change the deer hunting rules without talking to people."