NE ND Deer Dodge Winter & Drought

By Nick Simonson

While often the coldest and snowiest portion of North Dakota, the northeastern quarter like the rest of the state was spared the usually chilly temperatures and drifts it normally sees in the winter of 2020-2021, and as a result, the herds of whitetails in the region survived well.  With that, and a more limited impact of the statewide drought until recently, North Dakota Game and Fish (NDG&F) Big Game Biologist Bill Jensen anticipates that this fall’s archery and firearms deer seasons should be good for hunters in the northeastern units of the state.


“They’re looking pretty good, we had a relatively mild winter so they came out of winter in pretty good shape,” Jensen relates of the northeastern deer herds, continuing, “it’s been dry and over the years there’s been a loss of habitat up there, but in general I think they’re doing pretty good.”
The winter was so mild in fact, that the lack of snow cover on the ground prevented the agency from doing its annual winter surveys which occur following the firearms season.  With that, the NDG&F was left to establish herd numbers based on hunter observations and success reports from last fall, along with anecdotal reports of what individuals were observing this spring. With the lack of the winter data, the agency set license numbers for firearms units in the northeast with a conservative bent.


“[There were] concerns that we should have raised the number of licenses for the regular gun season higher,” Jensen relates of the reports NDG&F agents have received, “with the lack of snow we weren’t able to get any winter aerial surveys done, and we were just siding on a little bit of caution,” he explains.


While drought conditions have extended eastward throughout the summer, with exceptional levels registering in the western portion of that northeastern quadrant in recent weeks, the water levels throughout spring and summer available to deer were likely sufficient, according to Jensen.


“Whitetailed deer are pretty plastic, they can adapt very well to conditions. Deer – particularly does that are nursing fawns – need access to free water every day for milk production. That said, there should have been plenty of it on the landscape so they would have gotten access to water, so I don’t foresee that as a major issue,” Jensen notes.


While populations and recruitment remain good heading into the fall, habitat concerns loom large in the northeastern quarter of the state for resident deer herds.  Recent years have seen increased removal of reserve acres from the landscape in favor of row crops, and the drain tiling of wetlands is resulting in less thermal cover in the form of cattail sloughs which deer use for winter hiding spots.  Additionally, as mature and dying shelterbelts are removed from agricultural acres and the adjacent grassy cover goes with them, areas for fawning are disappearing.  While the immediate impact may not be felt, Jensen fears that the lack of suitable winter cover and limited grassy areas may affect survival when a tough winter hits and future recruitment efforts.


“The biggest habitat shortage is cover for fawns during the fawning seasons when they’re vulnerable and with the loss of treerows in that part of the state, that becomes an issue,” Jensen explains, adding “a lot of wetlands are being tiled to allow for more land to be put into commodities, and people don’t think about it sometimes, but wetlands are an important habitat for deer too, particularly in the winter,” he concludes.


As for the fall of 2021, despite the dry conditions on the landscape, Jensen expects an uptick in hunter success and for sportsmen and women to see more deer in their efforts this autumn. He encourages them to reach out to landowners early for access and to familiarize themselves with public access opportunities and the state’s new electronic posting program.  The North Dakota deer archery season begins at noon on Sept. 3 and firearms season begins at noon on Nov. 5.

Featured Photo: With conditions not as dry as the rest of the state, and a relatively mild winter, whitetailed deer in the northeast corner of ND came into summer in good shape. Simonson Photo

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