- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - For the first time since 2009, North Dakota hunters may have a limited opportunity to hunt pronghorn antelope.

The decision on whether to offer a season has not been made yet. But if it happens, the season would be limited to two hunting units in the southwest part of the state, said Bruce Stillings, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Stillings told The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1eKSga8 ) that if the season is a go, the two units open would be 3B and 4A.

The state’s pronghorn population is finally on the rebound after five years of steady decline, Stillings said, but is still below management objectives in most parts of the state.

The most recent population estimate puts the number of pronghorns at 5,400 - an increase of 49 percent over the previous year, but still 62 percent lower than 2009, the last year a season was held.

Stillings said population numbers won’t be known until an aerial survey of the state’s four pronghorn hunting units is done around July 4. The survey covers more than 11,000 square miles and is scheduled after pronghorn give birth, typically around mid-May.

If the numbers back up what Stillings said he expects to find, a limited season could be offered.

The window to apply for antelope licenses is a short one, and applications for licenses normally open in mid-August.

“Things are promising,” Stillings said, but a decision won’t be made until this spring’s numbers are compiled.

He said biologists expect to see a population increase because of another year without a hunting season and a relatively decent winter across much of the state’s pronghorn range.

It is hoped that that will translate into good high adult and fawn survival, Stillings said.

If the limited season is a go, Stillings said, he expects between 300 and 500 licenses could be made available for this fall’s season.

“Based on last year’s numbers and not knowing what fawn production will be this spring, that’s kind of the ballpark numbers we’re looking at,” he said.

Of course, this winter’s weather and the potential effects on the herd are the big unknowns.

A blizzard last October got winter off to a roaring start and a mostly mild January was followed by a cold February.

Compared to the previous year, Stillings said, habitat in the pronghorn range was better going into this past winter than it had been in previous years.

“We had good moisture last summer, and that helped to improve the residual cover going into the winter,” he said.

Depending on how things shake out, Stillings said, a limited season could offer hunters the opportunity to take a pronghorn with a bow and if they aren’t successful, they could fill their tag with a rifle.

Pronghorns mainly live in North Dakota on the eastern fringe of prime habitat and have historically been prone to dramatic downturns in numbers, depending on conditions.

While the latest upswing is promising, Stillings said, challenges will remain with pronghorn habitat in the west.

“Fragmentation of habitat due to energy development and loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres in the secondary range are challenges facing future pronghorn recovery in the state,” Stillings said.

There were once millions of pronghorns in North America, second only to bison in terms of numbers.

This latest closure on antelope hunting isn’t a first for North Dakota.

The hunting season for pronghorns was suspended in 1997-98 because of harsh winters that dropped numbers to around 4,000.

Just three years before that, in 1995, numbers were estimated at around 10,000.

From 2003-10, the population was estimated at above 10,000 animals.

Stillings said while the current population trend is promising, there are no guarantees there will be a season this fall.

“Based on last year’s numbers … things are starting to move in the right direction,” he said.

But the latest blizzard out in the western part of the state does have him worried.

“Those spring blizzards can be hard on cattle and wildlife,” Stillings said.

So between now and July, he said, he will be keeping his fingers crossed.

“Things look promising … but it’s not a done deal yet,” he said.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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