BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Thousands of hunters clad in blaze orange are taking to the North Dakota fields in search of white-tailed deer and mule deer. Most should have a fairly good shot of bagging an animal this fall. Here's a look at the season:
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Gun hunting for deer opens at noon Friday and runs through Nov. 26, for both resident hunters and those coming from other states.
It's the first time in several years that the season will extend over the Thanksgiving holiday. That's due to the cycling of the calendar and a state law that requires the season to start the Friday before Veterans Day.
For hunters, later is often better, according to Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the state Game and Fish Department. That's due to a better chance of snow for tracking and more active deer due to cold weather and mating season.
"Also, having that Thanksgiving holiday, people can generally sneak that Thursday and Friday off, and have a four-day weekend to finish up their deer season," Williams said.
HOW BIG OF A DEAL IS IT?
Deer hunting is big business in North Dakota. Each resident deer hunter spends about 7 days in the field, shelling out an average of about $136 each day. Nonresident hunters average about five days afield and spend $226 daily, according to the state Tourism Division.
That means deer hunting is an industry worth tens of millions of dollars to the state.
It used to be worth even more — a record 149,400 licenses were issued just nine years ago. But the days when deer hunting licenses in North Dakota exceeded 100,000 are gone due to a steady loss of habitat, and even reaching a 2015-set goal of 75,000 annual licenses is "probably a little bit on the lofty side," Williams said.
However, the state made 54,500 licenses available this year — 11 percent more than last year and 26 percent more than the recent low of 43,275 in 2015. The rise corresponds with the rebounding of the state's deer population after several harsh winters.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE SUMMER DROUGHT?
Even extreme and exceptional drought such as western North Dakota experienced this past summer doesn't affect big game like it does game birds. Young deer can nurse off their mothers, and adults can travel farther distances to find water.
"They have the ability to adapt more than, say, a pheasant," Williams said.
So for licensed hunters, the prospects of getting a deer are good. The Game and Fish benchmark for a successful season is 70 percent of licensed hunters bagging a deer, and "we've been hovering around that for the last couple of years," Williams said.
ARE THERE ANY RESTRICTIONS?
Mule deer does are off-limits in one hunting unit, in the Watford City area. But the mule deer situation has been much worse in past years.
Hunting of mule deer does was banned in North Dakota for four straight seasons beginning in 2012, following the string of harsh winters. But those restrictions have been steadily eased after years of rebounds in the deer population.
Results of this year's fall mule deer survey, released earlier this week, indicate fawn production this year was lower than in 2016. However, "It was still at a level able to support stable-to-increasing deer numbers, depending on the severity of the upcoming winter," big game biologist Bruce Stillings said.
MEAT AND HEADS
Hunters who don't like deer meat, have extra meat or just want to share can donate to the Sportsmen Against Hunger program, which helps charities to feed the hungry.
A list of participating processors is available on the Community Action Partnership of North Dakota website.
Hunters also can provide deer head samples to Game and Fish for the department's surveillance program for chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis. The Hunter-Harvested Surveillance Program this year is accepting heads for testing from nine central North Dakota hunting units and one southwest unit.
Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake