As a rural state, home to grasslands, badlands, rivers, and forests, North Dakota has encompassed prime habitat for game animals such as ducks, grouse, antelope, elk, deer, moose, and, at one time, bison. This place has also attracted hunters for thousands of years.
Unrestricted hunting as well as the development of farms and cities from the 1860s to around 1908 damaged most game animal populations. Some game animals including bison, pronghorn, and muledeer nearly disappeared. Elk and Moose did dissappear. Even whitetail deer, once – and again – so abundant, experienced major population losses until severe and lengthy restrictions on hunting allowed the population to rebound.
North Dakota did not have an official dedicated to the conservation of wild game until 1897 when Fish commissioner W. W. Barrett was appointed state game warden by Governor Frank Briggs. However, the legislature debated hunting laws periodically. In 1887, the territorial legislature instituted a game bird bag limit (the number of animals harvested per hunter) of 25 and prohibited the shooting of songbirds. The legislature of 1891 established open seasons on bison, deer, elk, pronghorn, and mountain sheep. In 1899, the legislature established a limit of 8 deer which was reduced to 5 in 1901. That year, seasons on bison, elk, moose, and mountain sheep were permanently closed. There would never again be open hunting on bison in North Dakota. Legislators, along with federal and state agencies across the nation, were beginning to recognize the need for game animal conservation.
As the legislature made steps toward the conservation of game, the major game populations of the state underwent significant changes. The extinction of bison was prevented by a few western ranchers who saw the need to protect and propagate the species. The numbers of pronghorn, also inaccurately called antelope, fell to such low numbers that the legislature closed the season in 1901. Hunters did not have a pronghorn season again until 1951. Around 1910, pheasants, a new, non-native bird, were introduced as game wardens and legislators noticed the decline of the prairie chicken.
After World War II, game conservation measures began to see positive results. Though prairie chickens remained precariously scarce, antelope re-opened, deer hunters enjoyed annual seasons, and most game animal populations rebounded. Today, there are hunting seasons on all the historic game animals of North Dakota with the exception of bison.
The story of game animal conservation demonstrates the importance of the application of scientific management principles to this important natural resource. Not only has hunting been limited by laws which are today rigorously enforced, game animal habitats have been supported by North Dakota Game and Fish Department as well as organizations such as the Mule Deer Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Pheasants Forever. The changes in hunting laws also demonstrate the vitality of democratic decision-making in North Dakota as hunters, legislators, Game and Fish commissioners, and interested citizens debated hunting and conservation laws from 1889 to the present.
Sources: SHSND Game and Fish Department 799 N814g (Annual Reports)
SHSND North Dakota Game and Fish Laws 799 N812
Ron Wilson, “Three Quarters of a Century: 75 Years of the Game and Fish as We Know it Today.” North Dakota Outdoors 67 (March 2005): 4-15.
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