Today was opening day of the North Dakota Deer Gun Season. Not long ago this day was all but an official holiday for North Dakotan’s across the state. But those days are seemingly behind us and I’m left to wonder if we’ll ever see them again?
I literally cannot recall a time when I didn’t get to go hunting as a boy. My Dad always took us with him deer hunting. In those early years, our hunting party also included my brothers, uncles, cousins, and friends. As a result, the memories are special.
In those early years – when I was way too young to have a tag of my own – I was the brush walker. My Uncle Bob made sure to let me know that my position as such was vitally important to the crew. He would even give me his sacred cow bell to take with me. I guarded that thing with my young life. I thought I was doing something important and I wanted to make my Dad and uncles proud.
Over the course of time, my Uncle Bob passed away. My other uncles moved on, as did our cousins. The hunting party of my boyhood was gone. Nevertheless, it seemed there was always others to fill in for those missing from previous years.
During my high school years, the opening day of deer gun season was something nearly every boy – and a number of young ladies too – looked forward to. In fact, many schools at the time finally stopped having school on opening day. After all, it was pointless having it with the skeleton crew that was left behind.
As the years have passed, the numbers in our hunting party finally declined until in recent years we sometimes have no hunting party at all. Last year I hunted alone.
Less than ten years ago, North Dakota saw record deer numbers, which meant record deer hunting opportunities. One year I had four rifle tags in addition to my bow and muzzleloader tags. I filled every single one of them and donated a lot of meat to people who needed it. I wondered at the time if we weren’t being a bit too aggressive with the deer tags.
Then in a perfect – yet unfortunate – storm of events, North Dakota saw some very bad winters. Those winters – together with the aggressive issuing of tags in previous years, loss of CRP acres across the state, and disease in some Western units – resulted in horribly low deer numbers. Some people even believe the Bakken Oil Boom to have been a contributing factor to the decline in Western North Dakota.
To give you an idea of how significant the decline has been , in 2008 the North Dakota Game & Fish Department issued a record 149,400 deer licenses. By 2015, the department issued a record low 43,275 licenses.
With such a significant decline in deer hunting opportunities, I have been concerned with its effects on the future of the tradition. Thankfully, the North Dakota Legislature and North Dakota Game & Fish Department have been proactive by encouraging Youth Hunting opportunities. As a result, the state has a Youth Season for those ages 12-15.
But will this be enough? Think of this– the period of time from the record high of deer numbers in 2008 to the record low in 2015 is seven years. A 16-year-old youth who entered the regular deer gun lottery in 2008 would have been 23 by 2015. With the limited number of deer hunting opportunities during that time, how many of our youth simply lost interest?
And getting the deer tag is just one piece of the hunting puzzle. In order to have a good hunting experience, land access is essential. There was a time when No Hunting signs were the exception. Now they are the rule. The decline of access to quality properties is undoubtedly a concern when it comes to hunting recruitment.
In 2005, North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission held a workshop in which they shared this regarding hunter recruitment:
“All the workshop groups emphasized another constraint to hunter satisfaction, recruitment, and retention: lack of hunting opportunities. By far, lack of quality lands on which to hunt… and lack of access to hunting lands are at the top of the list for lack of hunting opportunities . Publicly held lands are crowded with other hunters and non-consumptive users, are unsafe, and are unsatisfactory for hunting, according to most workshop participants.” (Emphasis Added)
As you can see, concerns about hunter recruitment are not unique to North Dakota. In a report released just three months ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released their “2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation”. The results contain some very troubling information for those who would like to see the big game hunting tradition continue.
The survey found that in 2016 just 5% of the U.S. population, aged 16 or older, went hunting. But here’s the troubling aspect– from 2011 to 2016 the overall rate of hunter participation dropped 16%. Now, keep in mind that “overall” takes into consideration all hunting activities. During this same period of time, big game (i.e. deer, elk, etc.) hunters fell a staggering 20%.
What can be done to reverse the trend? While we certainly can’t control North Dakota’s sometimes brutal winters, we must recognize those things that we can control. We must take the necessary steps to recruit and retain our young people. And the window of opportunity in which to do it is indeed small.
This afternoon I pulled up to meet my Dad, brother, and son to go hunting. My Dad – the only one with a deer tag – slowly came to the vehicle with the help of a cane. As we drove, I thought back to those many years ago as a boy with a cow bell. We drove by areas where I had shot deer and missed some too. The countryside, once accessible to most, is now riddled with No Hunting signs instead of hunter’s orange. And I couldn’t help but comment how much things have changed.
Could it be that we’re witnessing the death of a North Dakota tradition?
1. https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/north-dakota/articles/2017-05-12/north-dakota-deer-hunting-licenses-up-for-2nd-straight-year 2. https://gf.nd.gov/hunting/youth/deer