By Nick Simonson
The northwestern quarter of North Dakota has sustained a good population of both whitetailed deer and mule deer into 2021 thanks to a mild winter. But those warm and dry conditions that carried them through the region’s typically toughest months have also left conditions on the ground a bit ragged heading into late summer and the start of the archery season which draws many bow hunters to the northern badlands for a chance at a trophy mule deer. Even with limited cover and the impact of the drought on cropland forage and other factors, North Dakota Game & Fish Department Big Game Supervisor Bruce Stillings suggests hunting in the northwest should be good, with established populations of deer on the landscape.
“Generally both mule deer and whitetail populations are doing well at this time, we’ve seen an upward trend in both species in the last half dozen years,” Stilling states of the current population in comparison to recent history. However, he cautions, “[with] less quality deer habitat, certainly the landscape will not be able to support as many deer as it did maybe back in 2007 when deer numbers were at a record high and were coming off a decade of mild winters. But all things considered, deer in the northwest look pretty darn good right now.”
While the specter of chronic wasting disease (CWD) has loomed large over the region in recent years since its first detection in 2018 in hunting unit 3A1, last year’s sampling of harvested deer has suggested the prevalence has remained low. The inspection of hunter harvested deer following the firearms season last year came up with a total of three animals testing positive for the prion-caused disease which is always fatal. Two mule deer tested positive in hunting unit 3A1 for a prevalence rate of two percent of all deer sampled. One whitetailed deer from hunting unit 3A2 tested positive for a two percent prevalence rate for those samples taken from that unit last fall.
Across the region as a whole habitat remains spotty with some areas receiving timely rains and others being shut out, resulting in limited brushland and rangeland habitat and crops that likely will provide limited forage and cover. Despite those facts, fawning was fair to good for both species of deer in the region.
“Both mule deer and whitetailed deer had an initial good fawn crop, there was still areas of decent fawning habitat on the landscape,” Stillings relays, continuing, “we’re off to a good start but the true test will come in October and November to see how many are surviving to six months, and then ultimately how many are going to make it to that one year of age and be considered recruited into the population.”
Stillings cautions that habitat conditions in popular destinations are likely the worst in the region, rating the badlands extremely poor, and adjacent rangeland conditions remain in tough shape with shrubs and other cover showing the effects of the drought. It’s likely that mule deer will adjust their routines to these conditions and that may impact their movements, and ultimately the efforts hunters will have to undertake to locate the animals to put on a proper spot and stalk.
“We do have a good population of mule deer at this time and so hunters are going to have to adjust and see how mule deer are responding to these changes, to habitat and the drought, and maybe adjust their hunting areas accordingly,” Stillings advises.
Those changes will likely require more time on the ground and more distance traveled to find the holding spaces that attract deer in the rugged terrain of the northwest and in the nearby grasslands. With the likely chance of increased fire danger this fall, vehicles will have to remain at the end of established roads, and hiking will be the best mode of transportation to keep everyone and the resource safe in the continued dry conditions. It’s likely too that deer will be found deeper in those huntable areas of public lands, PLOTS and state school lands, and hunters should be prepared for the effort those adventures will require. The archery deer season begins at noon on Sept. 3 and the firearms deer seasons begins at noon on Nov. 5.
Featured Photo: Deer that find areas which got a timely shot of rain in the northwest portion of North Dakota are likely to have better cover and forage. Most of the badland reaches, however, remain dry. Simonson Photo.