BISMARCK — The outlook for North Dakota’s regular deer gun season can be summed up in a few words:

Better than last year – on pretty much every count.

Deer numbers are better in most places, more licenses were available, harvest and landscape conditions are far better than 2019, and the weather forecast points to temperatures more tolerable than last year.

North Dakota’s 16½-day regular deer gun season opens at noon Friday, Nov. 6.

“It’s not very often we talk about a good percentage of row crops being down by the middle part of October,” said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “Usually, the burning question is what’s going to be standing out there by deer gun season for row crops?

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“There’s a good percentage of row crops down in North Dakota, and they have been for the last two to three weeks.”

Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife chief. (Photo/ Ashley Salwey, North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife chief. (Photo/ Ashley Salwey, North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

That’s a big change from last year, when extreme wet conditions after heavy rains in late September and early October left row crops still standing during the opening weekend of deer season. Throw in an arctic blast that descended just in time for opening day, and hunters last year faced conditions best described as miserable.

“Last year, the conditions really tipped the scales in favor of the deer,” Williams said. “This year, probably more so the hunter, as far as conditions go.”

By the numbers

The Game and Fish Department this year offered 69,050 deer gun licenses, an increase of 3,550 tags from last year. The increase included 1,500 more any-antlered licenses, 1,600 more any-antlerless licenses, 250 more antlered whitetail licenses and 200 more antlerless whitetail licenses.

Antlered and antlerless mule deer licenses were unchanged from 2019.

More than 81,000 people applied for gun licenses in the lottery, and the increase in available tags marked the fifth consecutive year that Game and Fish has offered more deer gun licenses, Williams said.

“That’s good – you get more people, more opportunity out in the field,” he said.

Game and Fish uses a variety of criteria to set license numbers, including harvest rates, aerial surveys, depredation reports, hunter observations, input at advisory board meetings and comments from the public, landowners and department field staff.

North Dakota hunters last year shot an estimated 37,250 deer during the deer gun season, based on a post-season survey the department sends to a sample of hunters, for an overall success rate of 64%.

While that’s short of the 70% benchmark the department likes to follow in setting license numbers, other factors on the landscape, coupled with last year’s harsh hunting conditions, justified issuing more tags this year, Williams said.

“Just looking at those general trends, we felt pretty comfortable in most areas” offering more licenses, he said. “We didn’t make any massive jumps in very many areas, but it’s one of those things where we felt comfortable bumping licenses, as we have been pretty conservative, especially in the eastern part of the state, for a number of years and rightfully so.

“If you look at all of our different deer units in the state, it doesn’t take much to come up to 3,500.”

An outbreak in southwest North Dakota of a deer disease called epizootic hemorrhagic disease – EHD, for short – resulted in localized die-offs in some deer hunting units, prompting the department to offer license refunds to hunters in the affected areas, should they desire their money back.

“We know there was some loss down there, but as far as a population-level standpoint, it’s not going to have a meaningful impact on that population,” Williams said. “Some localized areas – yes, possibly – but from a unit-wide standpoint, it’s not going to have a super big impact.

“One of the factors of why it happens in certain years is you’re carrying a decent number of deer on the landscape to where disease is going to be more likely.”

CWD testing continues

The department again this year will sample deer for chronic wasting disease, which has been found in some hunting units, especially in the western part of the state. But instead of bringing in additional staff from universities or other agencies to help with sampling, Game and Fish staff this year will carry the load as part of precautions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said.

That will mean longer days for staff working in the lab, Williams said, but it’s the safest way to monitor for CWD, a fatal disease that can have a population-level impact on deer herds. Crews this year will be sampling deer taken from units 3A1, 3A2, 3A3 (north of U.S. Highway 2), 3B1, 3C (west of the Missouri River), 3E1, 3E2, 3F1, 3F2, 4A, 4B and 4C in the northwest and southwestern parts of the state where CWD is of greatest concern.

The department would like to see more hunters dropping off deer heads for testing, said Dr. Charlie Bahnson, Game and Fish wildlife veterinarian. In units where CWD is documented, Bahnson said about 10% of license holders submit deer heads for sampling. Outside those units, in adjacent units, it’s more like 2% to 3%, Bahnson said.

Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Dr. Charlie Bahnson, wildlife veterinarian, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

“In hunting units where CWD is documented, it’s important to get a good handle on where and how common it is,” Bahnson said. “But equally important, is documenting where CWD is not.

“In order to be confident in saying that we don’t have CWD in a unit, we have to test a lot of heads,” he added. “Only testing 10 heads doesn’t give you much confidence. But if we can get a lot of hunters to participate, if we can test a few hundred heads from each unit, then we can start to confidently make assessments of whether CWD is likely there or not. So, hunter surveillance is a critical part of the big picture.”

Collection sites this year are set up in Alexander, Amidon, Beach, Belfield, Bismarck, Blaisdell, Bottineau, Bowbells, Bowman, Carson, Crosby, Dickinson, Elgin, Flasher, Fort Yates, Fortuna, Garrison, Glen Ullin, Grassy Butte, Grenora, Hettinger, Kenmare, Killdeer, Mandan, Minot, Mohall, Mott, New Leipzig, New Salem, New Town, Parshall, Powers Lake, Ray, Richardton, Riverdale, Scranton, Selfridge, Sentinel Butte, Solen, Stanley, Tioga, Watford City and Williston.

Specific drop-site locations are available on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov.

Maintaining tradition

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s lives in ways that couldn’t have been imagined a year ago. Despite the uncertainty, North Dakota’s deer hunting tradition remains strong as ever, said Williams, the Game and Fish wildlife chief.

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“We know that it’s just a big tradition in North Dakota, and that hasn’t changed whatsoever,” Williams said. “Honestly, in a year like this, I think it’s even more important than it’s ever been after going through the things we’ve gone through in the last six months. The outdoors has been a welcome getaway for a lot of people, and I sure hope that people continue to do that through the deer season – and I think we’re going to see that.”