The rooms at New Salem's Arrowhead Inn are booked almost full for the opening next weekend of North Dakota’s deer season -- an annual tradition in the state -- and manager Patti Guay looks forward to it for much the same reason the hunters do.
“I like the camaraderie, talking, hanging out with them,” she said.
A good number of the hunters staying at the motel are from Minnesota, Guay said. They might have friends or family in the area, or might come back because the people are friendly.
The motel starts filling up about midweek. This will be Guay’s third season as manager, and she’s made friends with many of the inn’s returning customers, some of whom have been coming to the area for 15 years.
“It’s like fishing,” she said. “Even a bad day is better than being at work.”
About 67,500 deer tags were issued this year, according to Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife division chief. That’s an increase of about 10,000 from 2018. The deer population is trending up in the western part of the state, which allowed officials to issue more tags, but the eastern part of the state has been slower to recover from the “devastating winters” of 2009, 2010 and 2011, Williams said. And there are far fewer acres idled under the federal Conservation Reserve Program than a dozen years ago, which means less habitat.
“When you lose that, you simply aren’t going to have as many deer on the landscape,” he said.
Deer numbers are “pretty good” in the southwestern part of the state, according to Williams. Hunters in certain units could purchase additional licenses after the license lottery, which was an effort by the department to entice hunters to the area. Strong deer numbers, landowner tolerances and disease control all were considered in that decision, the chief said.
Special rules are in place in units 3A1, 3B1 and 3F2 -- in which part of Morton County lies -- over concerns about chronic wasting disease. Hunters who harvest a deer in those units must leave the brain and spinal column at one of the collection points in the unit. Hunters can debone or quarter the deer, which is inconvenient in certain weather conditions, Williams said, but the practice is in place to prevent the spread of the disease.
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“And when you’re headed home, all your work is done,” he said.
Unit 4B will be added to that list next year.
There are too many factors in play for Williams to predict hunter success rates. Last year, 64% of tag holders harvested a deer, a bit below the benchmark of 70% the department aims for. And of the state’s 38 units, “not all are created equal,” he said.
“It’s difficult to say,” Williams said.
Hunters will be faced with standing crops, unharvested due to recent wet conditions, that will provide cover from which deer will be hard to push. The state’s weather conditions have placed more stress on the agriculture community, too, Williams said, and hunters need to keep that in mind.
“Remember to communicate a little extra, be extra courteous,” he said.
Weather, too, can play a role in hunter success, but Williams echoed Guay's thoughts about the social aspect of the hunt.
"The majority of those with a license, they're going out regardless," he said.
The season opens at noon Nov. 8 and ends Nov. 24. Deer hunting contributes tens of millions of dollars to the state’s economy, according to state Tourism Division data.