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Deer hunting season has potential for tag holders [Grand Forks Herald :: BC-OTD-DEEHUNTING-PREVIEW:GF]

Hunters who were fortunate enough to draw a North Dakota deer gun license this fall should have a decent shot at bagging a deer, officials say.

In that sense, the deer season outlook is similar to the past couple of years, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

North Dakota's 16 1/2-day deer gun season opens at noon Friday and continues through Sunday, Nov. 26.

"Deer numbers appear to be OK in most areas," Williams said. "So, I think for people that have licenses, that have a deer tag, I think they're going to like what they see."

For the second time in as many years, Game and Fish this year increased the number of deer gun licenses available around the state. The department offered 54,500 licenses this year, up from 49,000 deer gun tags last year.

Before last year, license numbers had been on a steady decline since 2007, Williams said. Game and Fish issued a record 145,250 deer gun tags in 2004, and hunters shot 98,500 deer for a success rate of 74 percent.

The early 2000s likely will go down as "the good old days," and they aren't likely to return anytime soon as acreage enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program declines and less habitat is available for deer and other wildlife.

Given that reality, the department continues to take a conservative approach to the number of deer gun tags it makes available, Williams said.

About 40,000 people applied for deer gun licenses this year and didn't draw a tag, he said.

"The trend is going in the right direction, but we know there's a lot of people that would like to be participating that aren't going to have the chance," Williams said.

North Dakota hunters last year shot about 29,300 deer during the gun season for a success rate of 66 percent, department statistics show. Hunter success for whitetail bucks was 72 percent, and hunters with antlerless tags had a success rate of 60 percent.

The average hunter last year spent 4.4 days in the field.

Game and Fish revisits deer management goals every five years, and during the last goal-setting process in 2015, the department set a goal of building deer numbers to the point where it could offer 75,000 deer gun licenses yet maintain a hunter success rate of 70 percent, which has become the benchmark for North Dakota deer hunters.

That goal could be a bit lofty, managers concede.

"It could be on track if the weather helps, but we're also losing a lot of habitat out there," said Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck. "We got really used to having millions of acres of CRP and that's not there anymore.

"The effect of that is, when the weather is nice, we can get by, but when it's not, that's just another added stress. Plus, it reduces fawning cover for does, bedding sites for fawns in the spring and all of those other necessities."

Anecdotally, Jensen said it appears whitetail fawn production this year "probably wasn't too bad" in the southeast and southwest parts of the state. The north-central and eastern parts of North Dakota continue to lag, but the outlook could have been even worse if the cold and snow that hit in December and early January had persisted throughout the winter.

"Last winter started off a little scary," Jensen said. "It warmed up in late February, and I think a lot of deer came out fine. The portion of the state that was hardest hit was up in that Langdon country, which seems to find a way to get a real winter every year."

In the west, mule deer numbers overall have rebounded nicely, Williams said, thanks to several years of no antlerless tags and some nicer winters in the Badlands. Results from the Game and Fish Department's annual spring mule deer survey in April showed a 16 percent population increase from the previous year. The department issued mule deer doe tags in units 4B and 4C for the first time since 2011, although no antlerless licenses were available in unit 4A for the sixth consecutive year.

"We feel pretty good about mule deer numbers and about the recovery and the comeback that mule deer have done," Williams said. "Other than one of the northern units, we're issuing antlerless tags in most units and that's a good sign. All in all, things are looking pretty good on the mule deer front."

North Dakota's deer season by law is set to open the Friday before Nov. 11, Veterans Day. This year, Veterans Day is on a Saturday, and so the deer gun opener falls on the latest possible date. That means the 16 1/2-day season continues until the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

That doesn't happen very often, but a season that continues past Thanksgiving gives hunters late-November opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have, Williams said.

"Generally speaking, people do like that," he said.

And since Veterans Day is on a Saturday, many people will have the previous day off.

"We talk about the opening day of deer season being a holiday," Williams said. "Well, this year, it will be."

Hunters this year also can expect colder, snowier hunting conditions if recent weather patterns hold. That would be a big change from the shirtsleeve weather that has greeted hunters on some recent openers.

Snow on the ground definitely works in hunters' favor, Jensen said.

"Deer are much more observable with a white background," he said. That is readily apparent in the survey Game and Fish sends out to a random sample of hunters every year asking them to count and classify the deer they see the Saturday and Sunday of opening weekend.

"You can really tell over time - you'll see these spikes (in deer sightings) during years with the heavy snow cover," Jensen said.

This year's later-than-usual opener also is closer to the peak of the rut, which in North Dakota is about Nov. 12 for whitetails and Nov. 18 for mule deer, Jensen said.

That also should work in hunters' favor.

"The peak of the rut for whitetail is primarily influenced by daylight - that's what synchronizes the rut," Jensen said. "There is going to be day-to-day fluctuations from the influence of weather, cold and rain, but during the rut, (bucks) are going to be active."

In terms of other hunting seasons, North Dakota's muzzleloader season opens at noon Friday, Dec. 1 and continues through Sunday, Dec. 17. Game and Fish offered 1,022 muzzleloader tags, up 94 from 2016. Archery season is open through Jan. 7.

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