BISMARCK, N.D. — Deer hunting licenses in North Dakota are taking a big jump this year, and state wildlife officials are fully lifting restrictions on mule deer doe hunting in the west that were implemented eight years ago.
The Game and Fish Department announced Thursday that it will issue 65,500 licenses for white-tailed deer and mule deer for the fall season, an increase of nearly 19% from 2018. It’s the fourth consecutive year for an increase, as the agency moves closer to a goal of 75,000 licenses as early as 2020.
That level would be considered the new normal due to loss of wildlife habitat in recent years because of oil development and reduced grassland areas resulting from changes in farming practices. The state doesn’t expect a return anytime soon to the days of more than 100,000 annual deer licenses, which Game and Fish issued for 11 straight years beginning in 2001, peaking at just under 150,000 in 2008.
Hunters have through June 5 to apply for a 2019 license. This year’s regular gun season opens at noon on Nov. 8 and runs through Nov. 24. Deer hunting contributes tens of millions of dollars to the state’s economy, according to state Tourism Division data.
“We should be shaping up for a pretty decent fall,” state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said.
Both the white-tailed and mule deer populations have been rebounding in North Dakota after three straight harsh winters beginning in 2009. Licenses are up this year for whitetail bucks and does and also for mule deer bucks and does.
The mule deer population has recovered to the point where hunting of does will be allowed in the Watford City area for the first time since 2011.
Biologists counted 2,454 mule deer in a recently completed aerial survey that covered just under 300 square miles of the western Badlands. That was a drop of about 4% from last year, and the mule deer density of 8.2 animals per square mile was down from 10.3 in 2018.
However, it was still markedly higher than the 4.6 mule deer per square mile in 2012, following the tough winters that led to record-low fawn production.
Game and Fish banned hunting of mule deer does four straight seasons beginning in 2012 to help the population recover. The agency lifted the restriction in five of eight hunting units in 2016 and in two others in 2017, but doe hunting remained closed in Unit 4A in the Watford City area.
Game and Fish is issuing 100 mule deer doe licenses in 4A this year, according to big game management supervisor Bruce Stillings. That reflects a population recovery attributed to milder winters and the years of no doe licenses since 2013, which together have led to good fawn production, he said.
“However, the long-term health of the population will depend on maintaining high-quality habitat,” he said.