North Dakota's wildlife, particularly in the western part of the state, is reeling from the effects of a variety of factors. Energy activity is rolling at breakneck speed throughout some of the most prime hunting areas in the state. The resulting large influx of people, coupled with a series of harsh winters, is producing what may be the greatest challenges ever faced by state wildlife populations.
The antelope season remains closed. Deer numbers have declined so dramatically that mule deer hunting may soon be curtailed. Pheasant numbers are down. Many hunters say the trend is discouraging and they wonder what the future holds for the state's wildlife.
The agency responsible for managing North Dakota's wildlife is the Game and Fish Department. Director Terry Steinwand recently addressed several pressing issues in an interview with Minot Daily News outdoors reporter Kim Fundingsland.
MDN Game and Fish Advisory Board meetings have wrapped up. What did sportsmen have to say and what did you learn from them?
STEINWAND I was on the western swing. Berthold was the best attended. The issue is certainly deer and low deer numbers. We knew that coming in. Even though we had cut mule deer tags by about 50 percent this past season, we knew that was going to be an issue.
The primary concern in Watford City and Hettinger is mule deer. There's a good possibility we won't have a mule deer doe season next year. There is a possibility of a buck season. There's a number of reasons for that. By law we have to provide 15 percent of the previous mule deer licenses to non-resident archery licenses. One thing we don't want to have happen is non-residents having a higher license allocation than residents. We'll be bringing that up again next spring at the Advisory Board meetings.
In the eastern part of the state coyotes are a little more of an issue. Coyotes are taking deer. There's no doubt about it but, based on our research, it is not a significant impact. The winters are the biggest thing and they have been absolutely brutal. We even had a couple of blizzards thrown in on the end of this last one. Some of the deer we had radio-collared were in such poor shape that coyote kills were mercy killings.
MDN Recently both EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and CWD (chronic wasting disease) was found in our deer herd. How big of a concern are they?
STEINWAND EHD not an awful lot. It is constantly on the landscape. We had a wet spring and summer, pretty much perfect breeding for those midges that spread EHD. Whitetail are pretty susceptible to it. It was pretty much expected in the southwest. It started in early August and continued well into October.
The CWD? We are concerned there. The Wisconsin model is basically to kill everything. The Wyoming model is to monitor it and control it through hunting pressure. We issued additional tags in 3F2 because the deer herd was up and ranchers said we needed to cut that population down.
MDN Conservation Reserve Acreage is dwindling. What effect is that having on our birds and animals?
STEINWAND Even with our harsh winters, we're losing a lot of CRP next year. That will be a major factor on bird and deer numbers in subsequent years too. We've recognized this for a number of years now and have begun planning for life after CRP.
MDN The number of people in western North Dakota is rising rapidly and the landscape is changing just as fast. What will the total effect be on our wildlife?
STEINWAND I don't know if we can quantify that, even from just the pure traffic aspect. In North Dakota we're used to relative isolation and it's relatively easy to get where we want to go. That has changed, especially in the northwest quadrant where there's much more traffic.
MDN What effect has the oil boom had on the Game and Fish Department?
STEINWAND It's relative. It's something we have talked about and will intensely talk about. What area are these people coming from? Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming, basically the same type of hunting cultures we have in North Dakota. It means more demand out there.
How do we equitably distribute licenses? Many are residents of North Dakota. We have to deal with that. Many North Dakotans, such as yourself, know the enjoyment of relative solitude in the west and not having to listen every ten seconds to a motor come by. The next guy may say it's great. Things are changing dramatically and really fast right now. We're making some progress but it is exceedingly slow. We'd like to see it go a lot faster.
MDN Some sportsmen say they expect Game and Fish to lift the spear and shield and protect their hunting and fishing interests in the west.
STEINWAND We can't stand in front of oil trucks. I know what is expected of us but we really don't have any authority. When someone has mineral leases they have the right to get to it. That's the law.
Now, how can we minimize the impacts? We know we can't eliminate them. We try to understand how these people think. They don't understand how important this is to North Dakota. They are moving so fast we don't have enough people to deal with it. Oil impacts are certainly there. Speed and intensity is the biggest challenge right now.
MDN After the boom, what's left?
STEINWAND If you can tell me when that is, I'll tell you. We do have some pretty resilient wildlife on the landscape out there. In 1940 we had only about 4,000 deer in North Dakota. It's not like we coddled them and provided perfect habitat for them. Their ability to rebound is pretty good.
MDN How has the department staff been affected by the oil boom?
STEINWAND We're not different than any other business in the northwest part of the state. Housing is extremely difficult. We want to buy some trailer houses and put them up on our property. Employees can't find or afford housing up there.
There's some things we can address, maybe something to offset the cost of living. One thing we can't address is the quality of life up there. We've lost a few who lived up there for the outdoors opportunity and solitude which is no longer there.
MDN Let's talk about something not quite so dismal. How about fishing?
STEINWAND Well, it is dismal. I've been so frustrated it's been unbelievable. We have to do what we can to resolve some of these issues up there. Like my dad always told me, you gotta try.
Because of water and how long we've had it, our fish populations across the state have been looking pretty good. Last year was tough again for ice fishermen because of all the snow. We all tend to focus on the human impact of flooding, but we're still assessing the full impact of 2012. There was a massive volume of water through Garrison Dam that had an impact on the fishery. We don't know exactly how much.
We know we had paddlefish tagged in the Yellowstone that were below the Tailrace. Tagged salmon from Sakakawea were found as far downstream as South Dakota and had eggs taken from them. A walleye tagged in Lake Audubon was found below the reservoir. We'll continue to learn more.
A big concern is the number of forage fish lost. We all remember what happened in Lake Oahe in 1997 when the smelt flushed. Sakakawea was rebounding absolutely beautifully, but we don't know just yet. The smelt were coming back really nice. If they flushed down, we lost some ground.
MDN How about moose, elk and bighorn sheep?
STEINWAND - The sheep herd is actually doing pretty good right now. I haven't heard a lot on the elk. Moose now, with the exception of the extreme northeast, are actually expanding.
STEINWAND This year was the lowest reproduction since we've been monitoring them. That one we can attribute to the winter. The population in northwest South Dakota is about the same, even into Wyoming. The antelope are not going to come back in one year. I'd guess we'd need a good winter for antelope to re-populate. We just need much better winter and springs for these animals to come back.
MDN And mountain lions?
STEINWAND We are hoping to initiate a research project in the prime core area, what is considered their home range. We don't have a very good estimate out there for numbers. Are they a mortality factor? Yes, on whitetail, mule deer and sheep. How much so is one of the questions the survey will answer.
MDN Any final word for the sportsmen of North Dakota?
STEINWAND Yes, there's going to be some pain in recovering this deer herd. You may not get a deer license next year. There may be preference points for does, too.