By Nick Simonson
With the completion of the archery deer hunting season coinciding with the end of the calendar year, avid hunters have hung up their bows and stashed their camo in scent-proof containers. Whether successful or not behind the scope or the peep sight this autumn, they have already begun planning for next year’s adventures with the onset of winter. A great deal of work goes into that preparation, and the pastime of hunting the state’s big game has become a year-round activity for many, from the monitoring of herds through winter, the placing of food plots in spring, to checking summertime’s line of trail cameras leading up to fall.
The 2021 deer hunting seasons presented unique challenges and notable issues for North Dakota’s deer herds with difficult fawning conditions for the state’s western mule deer populations. Additionally, an expansive and impactful outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in the central and western portion of the state dwarfed last year’s occurrences in the same area, and the detection of chronic wasting disease (CWD) across the Red River in Minnesota just a few miles from Hillsboro, N.D. put agents of the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F) on high alert ahead of the firearms season in Unit 2B. Further, these instances have triggered conversation on changes in deer regulations for 2022, but much depends on the winter ahead and what the spring brings with it.
There has often been much discussion of adjusting the North Dakota archery season, which has allowed a license to be used statewide for both species of deer: the mule deer residing in the badlands and surrounding areas of the west, and the whitetails that can be found throughout Roughrider country. Public comment and concern arose from increased archery pressure on the former populations, coupled with this fall’s 25 percent decrease in mule deer fawn-to-doe ratios. With the relatively low archery success rate not varying much from year-to-year however, it’s unlikely a change will occur and the adjustment of issued rifle tags serves as a safety valve in relation to those mule deer populations, should NDG&F biologists deem it necessary, according to NDG&F Director Jeb Williams.
“This has been going on for a couple of years that there’s interest out there among archery hunters to even have that conversation. That’s something where the department is willing to have that conversation. At this point in time, it is more of a social issue, although I do like to point out the fact that the more archery hunters we potentially have in the western part of the state, the one correction factor that we have in place is our rifle licenses. So, if archery is starting to take and harvest a number of bucks, where we end up correcting that is through the rifle tags,” Williams explains, advising that policy has not been set on the issue, but discussions with sportsmen are ongoing.
Following the CWD-positive deer confirmed across the eastern state line in early November, NDG&F was also informed of one found just over the western border in Montana, adding to growing concerns and the possibility of changes pertaining to baiting, which still remains legal in much of the state, but is closely tied to the spread of the prion-based disease. Several deer firearms units where CWD has been found in North Dakota already prohibit baiting, and those surrounding units also limit the use of grains, fruits, salts and liquid attractants for hunting deer. With additional areas just outside the state posting positive test results in those herds which span the border, the possibility of a statewide ban on baiting deer looms in the near future.
“I do think it is time to have a serious discussion about [a statewide baiting ban]. Obviously CWD is in the state, it has surrounded the state, whether it’s Canadian provinces or other states. Are we doing enough to slow the spread of CWD and are we looking out for the best possible health of our deer herd in North Dakota right now,” Williams asks, “any time we have an area that we have a CWD positive that is confirmed within 25 miles of one of our units, then we implement the baiting ban. Until we get CWD within an actual unit, that’s when the transportation restrictions come in, but we’ll take all that information and have to digest that over the next couple of months and then come out with some of our recommendations as far as rules and regulations for our CWD proclamation,” he concludes.
Where the drought brought challenging conditions for herds, reduced habitat and lower quality of that which remained on the landscape, the recent reappearance of difficult winter conditions has many concerned about what wildlife may be up against in the coming months, and what that means for the number of firearms deer tags which may be available for next fall’s hunting season. While the obvious impact of EHD would be a factor, and the decreased recruitment of mule deer well-documented, several other data points remain before the NDG&F makes its decision on allotted tags in each unit next spring ahead of the lottery in June.
“The department is going to need to collect our various pieces of information and of course our hunter harvest questionnaires are a big part of that to evaluate how the deer season went. The department has some information on that already and last year (2020) we had a success rate of right around 69 percent,” Williams explains, adding, “this year we’re about 10 percent lower than that, so now we’re in the process of breaking down those deer units and seeing in those particular ones, which ones had that lower success rate. I think we can all probably anticipate which ones did, based on EHD and those types of things. Then of course it would be really nice to be able to get some good winter flying in this year as far as our whitetail deer surveillance goes.”
While hunters recount their past adventures from 2021, many will look forward to 2022 with intense interest as environmental, habitat-based and weather-related concerns abound, and like the many factors such as trail monitoring, food plot construction, and the simple act of sighting in a gun or practicing with a bow come together for a great hunt, those situations beyond sportsmen’s control also will play a role in the coming year.
Nick Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: Changes in regulations related to diseases such as CWD and decreased tag numbers in those areas affected by the recent drought and EHD outbreak may impact deer hunting opportunities in 2022. Simonson Photo.