Cow tag option puts elk meat in Bismarck hunter’s freezer

November 4, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — David Dewald’s love of hunting and the outdoors grew from small beginnings, hunting gophers and trapping for furs in the pothole country around Streeter.

It wasn’t until after college that the Bismarck man started hunting big game, and last year at age 65 he got the chance to pursue a North Dakota elk.

The hunt took a twist he couldn’t have imagined.

He stayed away from big game early in life mostly because his mom disliked the smell and the taste of venison. Since then, he and some friends have made deer-hunting trips to the Linton area a 30-year tradition.

“I can’t even guess how many deer we’ve shot down there,” he told The Bismarck Tribune.

Dewald felt it was time to accomplish the next goal, one that had eluded him since the early 1980s. His attempts to get a North Dakota bull elk tag had been unsuccessful, putting him in the same category as many others who have tried for the once-in-a-lifetime hunt. He decided to apply for a cow tag, which carries a much better draw percentage than that which comes with a bull tag.

“You get to the point in your life where horns don’t mean much anymore,” Dewald said.

Dewald, a former Natural Resources Conservation Service biologist, got the tag on his first attempt. He and two friends, Rick Patzman and Steve Sieler, headed to the Badlands on a Wednesday in August to scout. They spent half a day getting a feel for the land and putting locations in Dewald’s GPS device.

Their hunt plan changed on the way home. Dewald got a phone call from Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department Wildlife Division chief. He asked if Dewald would like to turn around and go back, a question that caught Dewald by surprise. Williams explained that he had received a call from a landowner with too many elk on his crop land. Four hunters with cow tags were going to get the chance to hunt in August, two weeks before the season officially opened.

“What do you think, guys?” Dewald asked Patzman and Seiler. “They looked at me like, ‘You idiot, of course we’re going to do this.’”

The odds of drawing a bull tag are less than 1%. The cow hunt is an opportunity hunters overlook, Williams said, whether it’s for elk or moose.

“If you want the experience of hunting moose or elk, the odds increase dramatically if you put in for a cow,” he said.

In North Dakota’s unit E2 (McKenzie and Dunn counties), for example, 5,481 hunters went after 29 bull tags in 2018. In the same unit, 180 hunters applied for 90 cow tags.

Cows are the drivers of population in a herd, Williams said. More cow tags are issued when the goal is to stabilize or decrease numbers; fewer when the goal is to increase it.

“In the last few years we added cow tags back into the lottery, and added more in response to landowner tolerances,” he said.

In 2018, 19,074 applicants sought elk permits in the state’s lottery, 418 received tags and 248 harvested an elk. The harvest included 135 bulls, 96 cows and 17 calves.

Getting chosen for a depredation hunt is never a guarantee and depends on several factors. Until a landowner calls about a problem, wildlife officials don’t know if a depredation hunt will be allowed. Williams considers the location of the overpopulated land and its proximity to a tag holder. If no one from the area can hunt early, he’ll expand the search and might consider a hunter’s age or physical abilities. A hunter unsuccessful during the depredation hunt can still take an elk during the regular season. And as with any hunt, the landowner has the last word on who hunts the property.

Depredation hunts came about in part because land ownership patterns are changing, Williams said. In the last 15 to 20 years, people might buy land on which they don’t allow hunting and don’t mind having wildlife. But elk go where they want, and a localized herd can wander from those lands and onto crop or pasture land. Having the depredation hunt available gives the department some flexibility in management.

“It’s a huge challenge trying to balance that,” Williams said.

Dewald got the call because of such a situation. He said yes to Williams and was hunting elk a few days later.

He was looking forward to the Badlands hunt he had planned, but only to a point. A successful hunter can easily put in several miles before getting an opportunity to take an elk. Then the elk has to be field dressed or quartered and carried out. And Dewald had just recovered from West Nile virus a couple of weeks earlier.

“It was all going to add up, and it wasn’t going to be the easiest hunt in the world,” he said.

He, Sieler and Patzman met with the landowner the Saturday after the scouting trip to discuss where the elk had been and form a plan for the next morning. The weather changed overnight to cold and drizzly with fog that limited visibility, but a northwest wind worked in their favor. They were in place by daylight.

Dewald waited a short time, but either out of impatience or excitement left the shrub where he was sitting to crawl up and look over a small knoll. The elk, a herd of 25 or so, were coming in as expected. He went back for his gun and waited.

“You could hear them grunt; you could hear them walking, snorting,” he said.

Dewald waited for the herd’s lead cow to pass some tall grass that kept him from getting a clear shot. The elk was just 68 yards from him when he took that opportunity. He texted a single word to his partners: “Done.”

“They’re a mile and a half away, and I think I could hear them cheering in the pickup,” he said.

Elk hunting in North Dakota is available to residents only. It’s a one-and-done tag, as are moose and bighorn sheep. Dewald doesn’t regret getting the cow tag and giving up the opportunity to hunt for a bull.

“Getting an elk is a thrill,” he said. He called Williams to thank him for the opportunity, saying he “got to push the easy button on this one.”

Dewald applied for a bull moose tag in 2019 but said he might seek a cow tag next year.

“You may never get a bull tag,” he said. And of the hunts he’s been on, this one ranks “right up there.”


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