North Dakota deer hunters received a dose of reality this past week. The annual deer gun draw was held and there were plenty of unsuccessful applicants. Not surprisingly, Game and Fish has heard from some who were disappointed in the outcome.
"We did hear from some who weren't very happy," said Jeb Williams, assistant wildlife chief. "We've been telling hunters for a year that we did anticipate reduced opportunities and now it begins to sting a little bit."
The number of available deer gun licenses has actually been dropping for several years. The number peaked a few years ago at about 149,000, a historically high number. In 2010, the number of deer gun tags was 117,000. It declined to 108,000 in 2011 and slipped further to 65,000 last year. There were 59,500 deer gun tags available this year.
Deer hunters team up to drag a mule deer to a waiting vehicle. Scenes such as this will be fewer this fall due to a reduction in the number of deer gun licenses.
The reason for fewer deer gun licenses, obviously, is that there are fewer deer in the state - whitetails and mule deer. Hunters and landowners and biologists know it. Surveys confirm it.
There are several reasons for the decline. Among them are three tough winters beginning in 2008, the loss of 2 million Conservation Reserve Program acres, and increased activity in energy and agriculture.
"We're headed in a different direction, as least as far as what is happening on the landscape," said Williams. "There are two trends the way I look at it: supply and demand. The demand is increasing with an increasing population in North Dakota. Then there's the habitat component, what it takes to actually support deer on the land."
Even though the amount of available deer gun licenses has been declining, the amount of applicants for them has increased. In 2012, Game and Fish received 66,078 applications for 65,000 deer gun permits. This year there was 84,745 applicants for 59,500 licenses.
"That's a big increase of applicants in the resident general lottery. Some people that fell off in 2012 may have got back on this year. Also, there's additional people moving into our state. I think the trend is we'll see more people seeking deer licenses in the years ahead," said Williams.
This year's draw was tough - very tough. Approximately one of every two applicants was unsuccessful. Of the 59,500 available licenses, 14,600 were issued as gratis tags to landowners according to state law. That left 44,900 licenses in a lottery with 84,745 resident applications.
The number of non-resident deer gun licenses is set by law at 1 percent of the resident licenses issued. This year Game and Fish received 2,681 applications for just 595 non-resident deer gun licenses, yielding an approximate chance of success of only 22 percent.
"We're trying to rebuild the deer herd," explained Williams. "We want to keep our focus on the deer while understanding there's some social issues out there. The years of 140,000 licenses are behind us."
It seems apparent that the odds drawing a deer gun tag in the foreseeable future will be quite long. White-tailed deer numbers may show an increase in the years ahead, perhaps mule deer too, but will it ever be enough to keep up with North Dakota's population boom? Probably not.