By Nick Simonson
With a mild winter, dry spring and a warm summer, whitetail deer populations in southeastern North Dakota are doing well. More than that, according to Jason Smith, Big Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) office in Jamestown, the relatively easy conditions have also helped improve the age structure of the region’s deer.
“With the lack of a real winter and obviously mild spring conditions the deer population is holding its own,” Smith comments in relation to the herd, adding that spring recruitment and overall survival in increase the population’s overall health, “we’ve had good reports of good reproduction and along with the stable population, our age structure is stabilizing as well, and while that’s great for getting those bucks into that older age bracket, it’s also great for that female segment of the population,” he concludes.
While dry conditions persist throughout the state, much of the southeast has been spared the worst of the drought and the impacts have been lessened on the area herd. Citing some timely rains, Smith suggests that cover conditions in the region have been better for the region’s fawns and for wildlife in general when compared to other locations in the Peace Garden State. While grasses and crops have struggled in the western half of North Dakota, that habitat remains generally okay for whitetails east of the Missouri River.
“I spent a lot of time traveling around the state, especially in western North Dakota in early July, and it’s really dry,” Smith states, adding, “but along those lines, habitat conditions look fairly decent based on my travels in the southeast.”
Currently, there are no issues related to diseases in southeastern herds of whitetails, as EHD and the midge that causes it – which was prevalent in southwestern North Dakota late last summer – doesn’t typically occur in the eastern half of the state, though a couple cases were confirmed just east of the Missouri River in last year’s outbreak. Likely the only environmental factor limiting the expansion of the deer herd and the overall population is the decrease in grassland and other habitat on the landscape of the southeast. While the number of acres once enrolled in conservation programs such as CRP and being converted back to farmland has tapered in the area, there hasn’t been much in terms of new acres being added to replace those lost in the last decade.
“It’s no surprise that habitat can be a limiting factor and we’ve seen quite a bit of a reduction of that traditional habitat we’ve had, especially in the eastern third of the state, but that appears to be stable, especially after the big losses with contracts expiring,” Smith explains, “but deer have adapted well to ag and crops, so while that’s present out on the landscape, deer at least have that cover and forage component, and along those lines we aren’t really having any concerns with carrying capacity at this point,” he concludes.
With that, Smith suggests that increasing firearm opportunities and a trend of greater success is a hallmark of a gradual improvement in the region which boasts a good number of public lands for hunters to utilize in their fall efforts. Between public areas such as the Sheyenne Grasslands, Waterfowl Production Areas and private acres enrolled in the NDG&F’s Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program, hunters should find plenty of opportunities to pursue their quarry – which appears stable and healthy this summer – when seasons open up later this fall.
This is the first in a four-part series detailing the health of North Dakota’s deer herds in each region of the state ahead of this fall’s archery season which begins at noon on Sept. 3.
Featured Photo: A summer buck in velvet scent checks the air in front of the author’s trail camera. Simonson Photo.