ND Deer Herd Fared Well, Habitat Concerns Loom

By Nick Simonson

North Dakota hunters will find more opportunities to pursue deer in the approaching 16 ½-day firearms hunting season set to begin at noon on Fri. Nov. 10, as populations fared somewhat well in the challenging winter conditions, and were not impacted by this summer’s drought conditions as much as other wildlife.  What hunters will see is a season similar to last year, according to Bill Jensen, Big Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDG&F), following a slight uptick in licenses issued for the 2017 season, to 54,500 statewide.

“Winter started out really hard, but thankfully about the first of February it warmed up and quit snowing, so [deer] came out okay across the state,” Jensen remarked, adding that anecdotally from field staff and comments from the general public, a good number of fawns were observed this spring.

The north central portion of the state, which received the brunt of last winter’s snow, stayed about even in terms of its deer population and management goals coming into spring, and there were slight population increases in the southeastern and southwestern corners of the state.  Licenses for firearm hunting in units within those particular areas reflect the flat, or slightly increased number of opportunities as well.

Minimal Impact of Drought

Based on their needs, deer were not as affected by this summer’s drought as pheasants or other small game birds were, and the warmer conditions were generally good for fawns.

“From the work that we’ve done and looking at historical data, drought doesn’t appear to be a major factor affecting mule deer,” said Jensen, adding, “whitetailed deer tend to do better with warmer weather,” though some moisture helps with the birthing and first few weeks of life for whitetailed fawns.

As to the health of mature bucks and their antler growth, there is little evidence to show that the drought had any impact, and studies are conflicting at best.

“Antler production is driven primarily by age and condition of the animal coming out of winter, I don’t think you can really tie anything to the drought or not,” Jensen related, “there’s been some papers that show increased antler growth in dry conditions, and others that show the opposite, I’m skeptical of trying to read too much into that,” he concluded.

Jensen expressed that good opportunities exist state-wide to harvest mature, well-antlered whitetail bucks this season, and the goal of the NDG&F is to provide a well-rounded deer population and hunting experience in each of the state’s 39 firearms hunting units.

Disease & Unease

The impacts of recent headliner diseases which impact herd health, such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) have been minimal this year as well, with nine reported cases of CWD in unit 3F2, where it has been in the past, and few reports of dead deer which may have contracted EHD.  Typically, Jensen related, pheasant hunters will turn in a number of reports on opening weekend about deer they encounter in the field which may have died from EHD, but following the recent opener, no such reports had been received by the NDG&F.  In terms of herd health, diseases are of lower concern, the biggest biological concern is “habitat, habitat, habitat” according to Jensen.

“What has been shown is that fawn survival decreases with loss of CRP and habitat in general,” said Jensen, “a lot of people blame [lower deer populations] on high coyote numbers, but if a doe only has a single tree row to have a fawn in, one coyote can pretty effectively hunt several sections of land; additionally, if there isn’t any grass cover or natural vegetation, and the fawn is on bare ground, you see loss of fawns to hypothermia,” he concluded.

Maintaining, improving, and more importantly, increasing such habitat should be of very high concern to sportsmen as they take to the field this season in terms of sustaining a huntable population of both species of deer in the state from year-to-year. The NDG&F has a number of private land habitat programs for those farmers and ranchers looking to include grass and similar cover to help benefit deer and other wildlife, and it will be important for sportsmen to increase their involvement in the coming years to influence CRP options in the 2018 Farm Bill via their elected officials.

The North Dakota firearms deer hunting season runs from noon on Fri. Nov. 10 to one-half hour after sunset on Sun. Nov. 26.

(Featured Photo: A nice 4×4 whitetailed buck checks his surroundings. Simonson Photo)

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