WATFORD CITY -- The main topic of conversation at deer camps and motel rooms during the opening weekend of the deer gun season concerned deer numbers. While some fortunate hunters were successful, many were not. The reason, say many veterans of the field, is that deer numbers are much lower than what they expected.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recognized that deer numbers were on the decline a year ago and reduced the number of deer gun licenses in several of the state's deer hunting units. Hunters were well aware they'd likely see fewer deer this season, but reports from several areas have been so discouraging that many hunters wonder if the season shouldn't be closed in some units.
"It's early in the season, but I don't think we've had any glowing reports. Let's put it that way," said Roger Rostvet, Game and Fish deputy director. "Obviously there's fewer deer out on the landscape than there has been for quite some time. Generally, a lot of folks are not having near the season they've had in the past."
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - Leon Delker, left, and son Chris Delker hunted throughout opening weekend of the deer gun season without filling their tags. Both men had white-tailed buck licenses.
One major deer processor in Minot reported that hunters brought in only about half the number of deer usually seen following opening weekend.
Another called the opening weekend "slow." Myers' Meats & Specialties of Parshall said the number of deer received at the end of the first week of the season was "considerably less than a typical year."
Jeremy Momberg, butcher at Walt's Market in Williston, has been busy but not necessarily with deer taken this season.
"What we've had come in so far is left-overs from last year, steaks that we are grinding into sausage," said Momberg. "Actually, numbers for deer this year have been significantly lower."
A similar tale was being told at Old School Meat Processing at Alexander at the end of the first week.
"It's been slow. Guys say you better take the first deer you see because they're not seeing anything out there," said Tim McGowan, Old School Meat Processing.
Three consecutive harsh winters have contributed to the decline in deer numbers all across the state, but other factors are influencing the deer herd too. Among them is a reduction in Conservation Reserve Program acres and a wide-spread outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, which is known to be fatal to white-tailed deer and possibly some mule deer.
"We are coming down real fast from real high deer numbers. Certainly there is some concern the way numbers are going," Rostvet said. "It is almost a perfect storm."
Another influence on deer is the massive encroachment in prime deer habitat, particularly in the west where mule deer roam, due to energy development. Mule deer do not adapt as readily to the presence of man as do whitetails and there is concern about the long-term effect on mule deer numbers. Greatly increased traffic and construction in the west has also changed the quality of the hunt for many mule deer seekers.
Reports from usually reliable whitetail country are mixed at best. Leon and Chris Delker of Minot were among the hunters expressing surprise at the lack of deer they saw opening weekend. They were hunting in Unit 3A2 northwest of Minot, including the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, which has produced good number of whitetails in past years.
"We spent opening day on the farm, which is usually loaded with does," said Leon Delker. "We saw two. This year is probably the worst year I've seen in 15 years if not more. It's terrible, terrible. Maybe they better think about shutting it down for a year and letting the deer come back."
Other concerned hunters have similar suggestions. Of course, habitat conditions and deer numbers vary throughout the state and there may not be a "one size fits all" answer to lower deer numbers. Certainly Game and Fish is aware of the decline and will be seeking input from hunters during advisory board meetings that will be held at various locations throughout the state following the completion of the deer season.
"This happened way faster than anybody feels comfortable with," Rostvet said.