By Nick Simonson
With the lottery drawing deadline for the 2022 North Dakota firearms deer season fast approaching on June 8, many factors influence the set number of tags awarded through the state’s online lottery process: herd health, weather conditions, disease and habitat availability affect the opportunities made available to hunters during the state’s most notable season. With a noted decrease of approximately 8,000 tags for this fall, many hunters will find a lowered chance of drawing their desired license after the application period closes, according to Casey Anderson, Wildlife Division Chief of the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F).
“We have a multitude of things we look at. We look at harvest surveys which obviously come after our season we had the year prior. Then we have data that we get in through aerial surveys if we have the opportunity, whitetail aerial surveys there needs to be a certain amount of snow on the ground. Then we do a lot of things based on if we had bad depredation in the area,” Anderson details of the factors that influenced tag levels for this year.
The largest drop in tags allocated across the state’s 37 firearms deer hunting units from 2021 to 2022 occurred in those located along the Missouri River corridor. There, in the drought conditions of last spring and summer, an outbreak of the midge-borne epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) hit white-tailed deer populations hard. These notable mortality incidents in turn reduced hunter success in the field. As part of the NDG&F post-season surveys of hunters, the agency received its first batch of information from that region, and others, that deer numbers – particularly the populations of affected whitetails – were down from the previous autumn.
“When you get into hunter harvest success rates, that really tracks the overall population very nicely. Obviously, if hunter success starts going down, your herd population is starting to go down. So that’s really one of the big ones we use,” Anderson explains of this year’s mailed-in results which showed a success rate drop by almost half in some units and the overall dip of approximately 25 percentage points from 2020.
Following those reports from hunters, the NDG&F conducted fall and spring aerial surveys of mule deer and were able to fly many of the reporting blocks covered for whitetails as well over the winter with ample snow cover for the airborne tallies. Those surveys confirmed the hunter reports that the latter species was indeed down significantly in many units in the western portion of the state but were generally holding stable in the eastern half. Mule deer numbers in the west were off slightly from 2021, as the species was not as affected by EHD nor the drier conditions.
“Mule deer we can do every year, they stand out when the leaves are off. We do them twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, because they have a white rump that really sticks out on the landscape and so we can get that count very easily,” Anderson explains, adding that white-tailed deer are a bit more challenging to tally, “when you get into whitetails, it gets a lot tougher if the snow is patchy on the landscape. Of course, they like to lay in those patchy open spots where it might be warmer or something’s exposed to where they can feed on it. So, they get almost impossible to see from the air,” he concludes.
While EHD was the primary factor reducing populations of white-tailed deer on the landscape, the drought did no favors either. While the drought’s impact likely didn’t cause mortality of older deer, it probably hindered the recruitment of new fawns into the population as lack of forage made nursing of those young deer by their mothers more stressful on the does. The setback from disease and the lack of additional deer brought into the population were the main reasons the NDG&F proposed reduced tags in the 2022 deer hunting proclamation when it was sent to the Governor’s office for signature this spring. With ample spring rains and heavy snow events, Anderson is optimistic for the upcoming fawning season and based on recent observations and the relatively mild winter prior that deer populations were not in bad shape when the inclement weather hit.
The deadline to complete an application for a North Dakota firearms deer tag is June 8 and must be done online at gf.nd.gov. Since beginning the all-online application system several years ago, the turn-around time to provide notice to hunters of their results in the lottery has decreased from more than six weeks when the process was paper-and-mail based to just 22 days in 2021. The 2022 firearms deer season opens at noon on Fri., Nov. 4 and closes one half hour after sunset on Sun. Nov. 20.
Next week, Part 2 will explore the mechanics of the lottery, the application and expansion of bonus points from year-to-year, and how the process works in assigning tags.
Simonson is the lead writer and editor of Dakota Edge Outdoors.
Featured Photo: Tough Summer. Recruiting new deer into the population was tough with dry conditions in 2021, but not as bad as the EHD outbreak was. Both elements factored into how many firearms deer licenses will be issued via this year’s lottery. Simonson Photo.