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N.D. hunters taking up archery hunting as deer gun tags become more difficult to draw

Tommy Sullivan pulls his bow up to his stand on a recent afternoon at his Thompson, N.D., farm. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service1 / 3
Tommy Sullivan, of Thompson, N.D., took up archery because he hasn't drawn a rifle tag, hunts recently near his farmstead. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service2 / 3
Brad Olson, assistant store manager of the East Grand Forks, Minn., Cabela's, says there's been a definite uptick in sales of archery equipment in recent years. The difficulty in drawing a North Dakota deer gun season tag has played a role in the sales increase, Olson believes. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service 3 / 3

GRAND FORKS — When Tommy Sullivan transferred to Grand Forks Air Force Base in 2012 from Edwards AFB in California, he bought a new .30-06 rifle in hopes of drawing a tag for North Dakota's regular deer gun season, which opens at noon Friday, Nov. 10.

He's still hoping.

"I haven't even shot at a deer with it yet," said Sullivan, 31, a technical sergeant who lives near Thompson, N.D.

As deer gun licenses become more difficult to draw — a trend that coincided with loss of habitat and declining deer populations — more North Dakota hunters are taking up archery hunting.

Count Sullivan in that camp.

Unlike deer gun licenses, which Game and Fish allocates by lottery, archery hunters can buy a tag online to shoot either a buck or a doe.

Sullivan, an Alabama native, said he became a North Dakota resident to increase his odds of drawing a gun tag. But this year, he again finds himself among the 40,000-or-so hunters who applied for gun tags but didn't get drawn.

And so he hunts with a bow.

"I love hunting out here, so it would just be cool to get a shot at trying to hunt with a rifle here," Sullivan said.

By the numbers

Game and Fish offered 54,500 deer gun licenses this year, up from 49,000 in 2016 but far below the mid-2000s, when more than 100,000 tags were available.

By comparison, there's no limit on the number of archery tags available statewide. Archery license sales have been on a steady climb since 2011 and are increasing at about 10 percent annually, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

Last year, a record 22,681 North Dakota residents bought archery tags, a number that doesn't include youth or nonresident archery licenses, department statistics show.

This year's numbers are tracking toward another increase, Williams said.

"We really saw the increase in archery licenses come starting right around 2012, when we made some of the really big cuts to deer gun licenses," Williams said. "Since then, it's really taken off, and so I think it is a symptom of a lot of folks not being able to get a deer gun license, and I just think it's the increase in popularity of archery hunting in general."

Brad Olson, assistant store manager at the East Grand Forks, Minn., Cabela's, said he's seeing a similar trend with sales of archery equipment.

"I can't tell you exact numbers, but I can tell you we're definitely seeing an increase the last few years," Olson, 40, said. "A lot of people are getting into it."

Hunters can get into a "lower-end" bow and a half-dozen arrows for $400 to $500, he said.

"The big thing we're hearing from customers is they're not being able to hunt in North Dakota" with a gun, Olson said.

Sullivan said he enjoys archery and has had some success, shooting a doe in 2014 and a buck two years ago. He says the adrenaline rush of getting a deer within feet of his stand is unlike anything he's ever experienced in hunting.

But still. ...

"It's not that I ever disliked archery hunting, but it would be nice to get a shot at getting a rifle tag," he said.

Managing opportunity

North Dakota's deer hunting regulations allow hunters who apply for a gun or muzzleloader license to still buy an archery tag over the counter. Luck of the draw means some hunters can hunt with a bow and also draw gun or muzzleloader licenses.

In an effort to spread out the opportunity as deer gun licenses became less abundant, Game and Fish in late 2014 proposed limiting hunters to one tag — either archery, gun or muzzleloader.

"Hunters couldn't have all three," Williams said. "It still (would have) allowed somebody the opportunity to have that over-the-counter archery license even if they applied in the deer gun lottery and were turned down."

Game and Fish felt the proposal was a "reasonable plan," Williams said, but the department eventually scrapped the idea after encountering stiff opposition both in public meetings and written comments.

"There were a lot of people who liked the guarantee of the archery license, obviously, but they didn't want to give up the gun opportunity, essentially," Williams said. "We had a lot of feedback saying they didn't feel we should change the system."

Stu Gullicks of Finley, N.D., says he took up bowhunting three years ago as another way to enjoy the outdoors and not because he couldn't draw a gun tag.

He has a buck tag in unit 2F1 near Finley for this year's rifle season and shot his first archery deer this fall.

"It was more that I never had the time, and I finally just decided now was the time to do it," Gullicks, 50, said, adding he likes the option of being able to buy an archery tag yet still have the opportunity to draw a gun license.

"I would be fine with (just one tag), but it's still nice to have the option of shooting both," he said.

Coping with success

Williams said the department may have to revisit its policy on archery tags if participation continues to grow and hunter success remains high. Last year, archery hunters shot 9,492 deer — 8,686 whitetails and 806 mule deer — for a record archery harvest and a success rate of 43 percent.

That's a higher success rate than hunters in many states enjoy with firearms. In neighboring Minnesota, for example, hunters last year had 32.4 percent success during the firearms deer season, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

Gone, it appears, are the days when bowhunters didn't have an impact on the deer harvest in North Dakota.

"If we continue to see an increase in archery licenses and the success rate continues to stay high, you can no longer say the amount of harvest associated with archery doesn't mean anything because it is starting to mean something," Williams said. "We're eventually going to have to look at the archery season and archery licenses just like we do with (gun and muzzleloader) and potentially look at restricting those number of licenses on a lottery basis."

North Dakota's regular deer season continues through Sunday, Nov. 26. Muzzleloader season opens Friday, Dec. 1 and closes Sunday, Dec. 17, and archery season continues through Sunday, Jan. 7.

More info: gf.nd.gov.

N.D. resident archery license sales

Here's a look at resident North Dakota archery license sales since 1996. Total doesn't include youth licenses, which ranged from a low of 878 in 1998 to a high of 1,669 last year; or nonresident archery tags, which ranged from a low of 694 in 1996 to a high of 3,201 in 2010.

• 1996: 10,149.

• 1997: 9,493.

• 1998: 9,343.

• 1999: 9,671.

• 2000: 10,448.

• 2001: 11,022.

• 2002: 11,338.

• 2003: 12,704.

• 2004: 12,832.

• 2005: 13,237.

• 2006: 15,335.

• 2007: 15,843.

• 2008: 16,486.

• 2009: 16,812.

• 2010: 17,466.

• 2011: 16,177.

• 2012: 18,520.

• 2013: 19,818.

• 2014: 20,115.

• 2015: 22,226.

• 2016: 22,681.

— Source: North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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