BISMARCK, North Dakota — North Dakota's deer hunting landscape has changed and it's unlikely that it will return to the not-so-distant days when deer and licenses were plentiful, wildlife management officials say.
When gun season begins Friday at noon, hunters lucky enough to get a license will be pursuing game during a bleak deer hunting period for the state, though officials have a brighter outlook for coming years.
"We hope we've bottomed out," Game and Fish Department Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said.
The 43,275 deer gun licenses that were made available for this fall's hunt is the lowest in nearly 40 years — meaning tens of thousands of deer hunters have to leave their guns on the rack. Just seven years ago, licenses hit a record at just under 150,000, but those days likely are gone for good.
"Looking back, historically, (2008) was much more the exception than the rule," Williams said. "We had prime conditions for white-tailed deer during that time."
There have been dramatic changes since — a precipitous drop in grassland habitat in the state as farmers have turned idled land into productive land for lucrative crops, a booming oil industry in the west and three straight harsh winters beginning in 2008 that took a heavy toll on the deer population.
Game and Fish made more than 100,000 deer licenses available every year from 2001-2011, but it has reduced the number in every year since.
"The landscape looks quite a bit different than it did 10 years ago," Williams said. "Moving forward, people will need to adjust their expectations."
North Dakota still has a decent base of deer habitat, and recent mild winters have benefited the animals, Williams said. A recent survey indicated that the mule deer population in the western Badlands is continuing to recover.
"The buck-to-doe ratio remains stable, and we had another good year of fawn production," said Bruce Stillings, big game management supervisor for Game and Fish.
Hunting of mule deer does is not being allowed for the fourth straight season, to help the population recover.
"If we have another mild winter, this will be the last year of that restriction in place," Williams said.
Game and Fish officials hope that with another mild winter they also will be able to start increasing total deer licenses. The agency's management strategy for deer has a goal of about 76,000 licenses five years from now, provided winters are not too harsh.
"That probably will fall below meeting the public's expectations (but) reaching 100,000 licenses in the foreseeable future is a very challenging task," Williams said.
The season runs through Nov. 22.
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