Over the past couple of years, I have written several times about the decline in North Dakota’s wildlife population since the Bakken Boom began. It may just be a coincidence that numbers of game species (deer, sage grouse, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope, to name a few) have been decimated at the same time as the big oil boom took place. Or not. There have been a number of factors, including some harsh winters a few years back, disease (including rubber tire disease) and questionable decisions by the Game and Fish Department. The number of deer licenses being issued this year, for example, is about 100,000 fewer than in 2008, just seven years ago, because of sharp declines in the deer population. In an article I wrote recently for Dakota Country magazine, which should appear in the mail and on newsstands this weekend, I talked about one of those questionable decisions and the politics of it. Even if you’re not a deer hunter, you might want to read this anyway for a good lesson in the politics of game and fish management and hunter management.
At noon on Nov. 6, just about four months from now, about 40,000 North Dakotans are going to be doing something other than what they had hoped to be doing. That’s when the North Dakota deer season opens, and that’s how many hunters are not going to be going deer hunting. Because they didn’t draw a license in this year’s deer gun lottery.
In recent years, the department has had to severely restrict the total number of deer gun tags issued statewide, for a number of reasons we won’t go into here. You’ve all heard the litany. This year, the department will issue just over 43,000. Of those, about 13,000 will go to landowners who get a gratis license for taking care of the deer herd for us. That leaves about 30,000 licenses to be drawn for in the lottery. About 70,000 people were expected to apply this year. You do the math. But that number of unsuccessful applicants could have been cut substantially if the department had stuck to its guns late last year.
At a North Dakota Game and Fish Advisory Board meeting in Bismarck last Dec. 2, director Terry Steinwand was pretty unequivocal about the change he was about to make in the allocation of 2015 deer licenses. After discussing a number of options with his biologists, Steinwand was ready to go ahead with a “One Tag Only” season in 2015. Meaning that if you drew a gun tag in the 2015 lottery, you would not be able to buy a second tag to take a deer with a bow, as in past years.
Traditionally, there’s been no limit on how many bow licenses can be issued, the theory being that generally the number of deer taken by bowhunters is not significant enough to affect the deer population. Each year, somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 licenses are issued to bowhunters. Any North Dakotan who wants to hunt deer with a bow can do that. Bow licenses are issued all year long.
Hunters who want to get a gun tag AND a bow tag apply for the gun tag in the lottery and take their chances just like anyone else. If they are drawn, they can still go get a bow license and hunt with a bow right up until rifle season, and then go out to deer camp with their buddies on Nov. 6 and hunt with a rifle. A lot of them do that. A lot.
Under Steinwand’s proposal last winter, acknowledging that these are hard times requiring some sacrifice by all of us until the deer herd bounces back, the idea was, if someone is a serious bowhunter, and really, really wants to hunt deer with a bow, and doesn’t want to be restricted to a specific unit, they would purchase a bow license and forego the lottery for a rifle license, thereby freeing up that license for someone not interested in bowhunting. It likely would have meant a few thousand — or maybe as many as 10,000 — more non-bowhunters would have drawn a rifle tag this year.
So what happened to Steinwand’s “One Tag Only” proposal? It disappeared. Steinwand got run over by the North Dakota Bowhunters Association. Unhappy bowhunters won a political argument. Bowhunters are great sportsmen, but too many of them are also selfish. Bowhunting is not a sport for the timid. It’s hard work but also, when successful, incredibly stimulating. Problem is, it often does not result in taking a deer. And so, to have the best of both worlds, a lot of bowhunters want the option of being able to go shoot a deer with their rifle at the end of the season to guarantee they’ll have some venison in their freezer.
So how’d they do it? Well, they showed up, and victory often goes to those who just show up. They showed up at Game and Fish Advisory Board meetings last winter, like the one I attended here in Bismarck, where Steinwand argued pretty hard in favor of his “One Tag Only” proposal, saying bowhunters have not had their opportunity to bowhunt reduced, the way gun hunters have. I left that meeting convinced (and pleased) that Steinwand really believed that “One Tag” was the way to go until the deer herd recovers from its current problems, in spite of how noisy the bowhunters were at the meeting.
But the bowhunters used another tool. They got political. They wrote letters to people in high places, some even containing threats of political repercussions. It wouldn’t be fair to say there was a flood of letters to the governor’s office, or to director Steinwand, but there were enough to make a difference. Here’s a sample (the comments in parentheses are mine):
- “Gov. Dalrymple: I am concerned about the N.D. Game and Fish Department’s proposal to change the deer allocation system… This decision is proposed to take a little heat off of the department, even though it will only add about 7,000 to 7,500 more people in the field.” (Only?)
- “Dear Gov. Dalrymple: The alternative currently being considered, in my opinion… brings too many restrictions upon those who enjoy hunting with multiple types of weapons. Please direct your agency to take no action and CONTINUE TO MANAGE DEER ALLOCATIONS AS THEY TRADITIONALLY HAVE.” (“Direct your agency?” I’m not sure I like the idea of the governor telling the Game and Fish biologists how to do their job.)
- “To Gov. Dalrymple: I have purchased an archery tag for over 20 years now… I am also a landowner and get my gratis tag yearly to hunt my own land on which I have shot several respectable bucks… Why not make a new category of license available through the lottery that allows hunting with a bow, rifle and muzzleloader (any weapon, any season) sell it for twice the price of the regular gun lottery license.” (This guy gets a free tag AND a bow license. That’s about as good as it gets.)
- To Gov. Dalrymple: “I am writing hoping that I am one of MANY people contacting you in OPPOSITION to the N.D. one deer tag proposal. Anyone with common sense knows that his makes NO sense. Tell Game and Fish if they want to do something constructive, ELIMINATE the taking of does.” (That would leave another 10,000 or 20,000 people at home on Nov. 6.)
- “To Gov. Dalrymple: As the governor, please ask the director of Game and Fish to not implement the one-tag system.” (Once again, asking the governor to override the director.)
- “Dear Gov. Dalrymple: “I believe this is a knee-jerk reaction to the incessant whining of a spoiled populous (sic). SUSPEND DOE KILLING STATEWIDE FOR TWO YEARS. PUT A BOUNTY ON COYOTES. MANDATE ALL GUNS IN VEHICLES BE ENCASED AND FULLY UNLOADED. Our state has gone through a huge transformation in the last several years, and it scares the heck out of me when I see who’s driving the roads with loaded guns.” (New gun laws?)
- “To Gov. Dalrymple: I believe that if we are going to make a decision like this, it should be put to a public vote. Then you would know the majority opinion.” (Think Al Jaeger can figure out how to get THAT on the ballot?)
- “To Gov. Dalrymple: This plan punishes landowners because it would force me to choose between gun hunting my own land or bowhunting with my friends across the state… It appears the governor is the only chance to stop this policy. I just want it to be known that I feel strongly enough against this and, if it is enacted, it will decide my vote for governor in two years.” (Well, I don’t think Jack was really shaking in his boots.)
- “Dear Gov. Dalrymple: In general, one-tag option is going to suppress the interest of our youth getting into the heritage of hunting, not accomplish the goal that you are trying to achieve, and will require future legislation and changes to correct this problem.” (Uh-oh. Calling in the Legislature.)
- “Dear Director Steinwand (cc: Gov. Dalrymple): The “One-Tag Option”, as you proposed, is a terrible idea dreamed up by someone with a short term view of things, and, if implemented, will immediately tarnish and damage the hunting system we have all grown up with. This is our culture and tradition you are meddling with. A few ideas to consider — temporarily eliminating nonresident tags.” (I’ve been waiting for that “no non-residents” thing to come up.)
The letters to the governor were given to the Game and Fish Department to respond to. That’s how governors do things. All the writers got a letter or a phone call from Steinwand or Wildlife Division chief Jeb Williams. I asked to see the letters I quoted from above. They’re public records once the governor opens them. I didn’t ask to see the responses. And I don’t know how much influence the letters to the governor, or the governor himself, had on Steinwand’s decision to just leave things the way they are. I think I don’t want to know. I do know that Steinwand has said over and over that his job is not only to manage the wildlife but to manage the hunters. There’s a customer service element to what he does, and that often plays a role in his decision-making process. It’s a fine line he walks, and as he said at the Advisory Board meeting, “When I make a decision, I will make half the people in this room happy and half the people unhappy.” I’m guessing that among the half that were unhappy with his final decision were his own biologists.
As I read through those letters, though, I saw some things I really didn’t like, as you can see from my comments. For example, the requests for the governor to step in and override the experts — the biologists — at the Game and Fish Department. I’m trying to imagine, if the governor did that on any regular basis, how most North Dakota sportsmen and women would feel about that. While technically it is the governor who issues the annual hunting and fishing proclamations, most often that is just a formality, lending stature to a tradition of hunting and fishing that we hold most dear here on the prairie. Details are left to the biologists. At least we hope so.
It seems to me that the bowhunters who opposed the One-Tag Only proposal exhibited a selfishness that has no place in our outdoor heritage. Yes, they want to experience the ruggedness — even primitiveness — of hunting a deer with a bow. But the chances are they won’t get a deer, so they want that gun license, too, as their backup, to insure meat in the freezer. They want to have their cake, and eat it, too.
And then, there’s the guy who says to create a new “everything” license and double the price. Fine for those wealthy folks, I suppose. But I’m not sure that’s how things are supposed to work — an entitled gentry — in the fields and streams of North Dakota, or America.