Deadline Nears – North Dakota Elk, Sheep & Moose

February 18, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

It’s March and time to think about moose, elk and bighorn sheep hunting. While the fall seasons are still half a year away, the license application process begins and ends in March. If you want to have even a small chance of hunting one of North Dakota’s special big game species, the most important step is submitting an application before the March 23 deadline.

Like all North Dakota big game hunts, the application period is well ahead of the actual hunting season. This usually gives hunters plenty of time to plan and prepare once they learn if they have a license, and that’s especially important for the “Big Three” because a license for any one of these species is once in a lifetime.

While the odds of drawing a moose, elk or sheep license are slim, it’s even a good idea to think about how you will fit in a hunt for one of these species before you apply. Most hunters who receive one of these coveted licenses spend a great deal more time in preparation and in actual hunting than you would normally devote to hunting deer.

Here’s a rundown on the big three species and some things to consider before you apply.


Last year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department made available 219 elk licenses and 12,052 prospective hunters applied, which breaks down to one lucky hunter for every 55 who sent in their $3 fee.

As long as those odds seem, an elk license is the easiest to get of the big three. On the other hand, elk are the hardest big game animal to hunt in North Dakota. Hunters contemplating submitting an application must realize that less than half the hunters who get elk licenses actually tag an elk. That’s by far the lowest hunter success rate for any North Dakota big game species.

Elk hunting in the badlands is not easy, whether it’s the early season in August when temperatures can rise above 90 degrees, or a later season when more winter-like conditions prevail.

Some elk hunters, including those who are physically prepared, did a lot of scouting and lined up several places to hunt, may go several days without even seeing an elk.

Drawing an elk tag means pre-season scouting trips to look for elk and line up land on which to hunt. Connecting with landowners is as important as choosing a gun and ammunition. The next step is getting in shape so you can walk several miles a day in badlands terrain.

I don’t mean to discourage potential applicants, but it’s important to go into the drawing knowing what lies ahead if you’re one of the lucky numbers the computer selects.


If you draw a moose tag, odds are that you’ll fill it. Last year, hunter success was 86 percent statewide.

Getting a license, however, was the hard part. Game and Fish offered 135 licenses, and 13,244 people applied, for odds of about one in 98.

Moose are the largest big game animal in North Dakota. That size adds another element for which to prepare, in addition to scouting and landowner contacts.

Don’t believe me? Years ago on a poached moose case I was stuck by myself field dressing an average sized moose. The body cavity literally engulfed me. Even with the proper equipment on flat terrain, and a heavy duty electric winch and ramp, I nearly broke my full sized Dodge in two trying to load the enormous creature into the box of my pickup.

If you care to practice, offer to field dress and butcher a cow — by yourself. My point is, if you’re going to apply for a moose or elk license, know what might lie ahead and be willing to prepare for it.

Bighorn Sheep

Compared to bighorn sheep, elk and moose licenses are easy to get. Last year, Game and Fish offered three bighorn licenses for the lottery, which attracted 8,338 suitors, or one license for every 2,779 applicants.

While bighorn hunter success is typically 100 percent, it’s a physically demanding badlands hunt that can require many days afield … not a bad thing, unless you’re not prepared for it.

One other thing: most North Dakota bighorn hunters consider any sheep they tag as a true trophy and take the head to a taxidermist, so if you’re applying for a bighorn license, factor that into your expense account.

The bottom line is, moose, elk and bighorn sheep are the crème de la crème of big game hunting in North Dakota. As you deliberate over filling out and submitting an application by the March 23 deadline, ask yourself if you are ready to devote the necessary time and effort to make it truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience if you’re lucky enough to draw a license.


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