By BLAKE NICHOLSON | Associated Press
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota hunters had a smaller chance of downing a doe or buck last season among the lowest deer population in three decades, and wildlife officials say stemming the decline of the animals' habitat is key to restoring both.
Hunters killed about 28,600 deer during the 2013 season for a success rate of 55 percent, according to the state Game and Fish Department. That was down from 59 percent in 2012 and well below the long-term average of 70 percent.
The state issued only 59,500 licenses last year, a 30-year low. The deer population was devastated by three straight harsh winters beginning in 2008, when deer licenses peaked at just under 150,000. A bigger threat in the long term is the loss of habitat to factors such as tree thinning, more activity in the state's oil patch, and the loss of native or idled prairie to crops, said Randy Kreil, wildlife chief for the Game and Fish department.
“Unless measures are taken to reduce the loss of habitat and efforts are made to replace habitat that's been lost, our deer population will have a very difficult time rebounding,'' Kreil said.
The Game and Fish department held eight public meetings around the state last month about deer management.
“It was pretty eye-opening,'' Kreil said. “Every meeting we went to, no matter where we went in the state, people recognized and were concerned about the loss of habitat and what it means to the future of hunting.''
Kreil said the department has programs aimed at improving deer habitat, but can't make up for the loss on its own. The new federal farm bill should help, he said. The legislation allocates nearly $58 billion for conservation programs over the next 10 years, according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Several private organizations also have programs aimed at boosting habitat, such as the Mule Deer Foundation, which has launched an effort to restore habitat on private lands through a cost-sharing controlled burn program.
“What we want to do is work with private landowners to enhance their habitat or rebuild it,'' Regional Director Marshall Johnson said. “We're in the process right now of identifying potential landowners interested in these projects, really taking a look from the Killdeer area to Watford City and down to the interstate.''
The foundation is working with Medora-area cattle rancher Kim Shade on a pilot project. The plan is to do controlled burns in canyon areas where heavy brush is choking the mule deer habitat, Shade said. The animals are struggling, particularly with the recent oil boom in the region, he said.
“Whitetails, they can live in downtown Bismarck, downtown Minneapolis,'' said Shade, 61. “Mule deer can't do that, and their habitat has been disappearing at an alarming rate.''
The project on the Shade ranch will cost about $85,000, according to Johnson. The foundation is paying part, Shade is contributing, and the North Dakota Petroleum Council is paying about half.
“The NDPC got involved because the outdoor experience and hunting heritage are central to many of our lifestyles, including many employed by the oil and gas industry,'' council spokeswoman Tessa Sandstrom said.
The council encourages energy companies to use computer-mapping tools created by the Game and Fish department to identify wildlife habitat and avoid it, Sandstrom said. Some companies work with wildlife groups individually, and some even cooperate with landowners to restore habitat on reclaimed land surrounding well pads.
Kreil said there is no simple solution to restoring habitat in North Dakota.
“It's going to take a lot of effort, on the part of a lot of people,'' he said.
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