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Brad Dokken / Forum News Service, Published November 06 2013

Minnesota works on rebuilding its deer herd

GRAND FORKS - Think of it in sports terms, and it’s a rebuilding season for Minnesota’s deer herd in most parts of the state. That means hunters in many areas will be going afield either in “hunter’s choice” or “lottery” permit areas when the state’s deer season opens Saturday morning.

Either a buck or a doe, in other words, in hunters’ choice areas – or bucks-only if they didn’t apply for and receive an antlerless permit in the areas designated as lottery.

The days of “intensive” management designations, where hunters could buy as many as four antlerless tags in addition to their regular license, generally are gone with the exception of a handful of permit areas near the Twin Cities.

Even the less-liberal “management” areas, which allow a two-deer limit, are less common than they were just a couple of years ago and limited mostly to areas of north-central and southeast Minnesota.

And that’s largely by design, wildlife managers say.

“We’re going to see a deer season similar to last year” in terms of regulations, said John Williams, regional wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. “In many areas, we still don’t really have a good handle on the ability of an area and whether it can sustain a managed harvest strategy year after year.”

In northwest Minnesota, permit areas 101, 105, 111, 267 and 268 are lottery-only for antlerless permits this year but weren’t last year, as is permit area 176 in the northeast part of the state.

Williams said the extended winter in northern Minnesota likely had a negative impact on production.

“From early reports, hunters are not seeing as many fawns with does as they typically would be seeing,” he said. “That could be a direct result of the long winter.”

Finding the middle ground, or what Williams calls the “sweet spot,” is the tricky part for wildlife managers not only in Minnesota, but across the country. The DNR after severe winters in the late 1990s implemented conservative regulations that saw deer populations quickly explode to the point where hunters in 2003 registered a record 290,525 deer – more than double the 143,327 registered in 1997 after the last extreme winter.

Last year, by comparison, hunters registered 186,634 deer in Minnesota between the firearm, archery and muzzleloader seasons.

“We went way over goal in many areas, and it took quite a while to get back to the state we’re in,” Williams said. “We’re finally building populations; before that, we were taking populations down toward goal.”

So, which is better from a manager’s perspective?

“That depends on who you want hollering at you,” Williams said. “With high populations, there are (crop) depredation concerns, forest damage and car collisions. And on the other hand, with low populations, there’s less recreational value and hunters are concerned about seeing deer.

“If we can get close to that sweet spot where you’re not too hot and not too cold … it’s all but impossible to hit that. We don’t want to be in a situation where we really have to manage up or really have to manage down.”

Either way, though, few events on the outdoors calendar can top the Minnesota deer opener when it comes to tradition. Across the Northland, hunters are firing up the wood stoves in hunting camps, fixing deer stands and looking forward to time spent with family and friends.

No wonder, then, that some half a million people, give or take a few thousand, will be venturing afield during the firearms deer season.

“Overall, it’s kind of hard unless you’re in that area where we’re really trying to build up deer numbers to not be excited about deer season,” Williams said. “There’s going to be opportunities for just about everybody that goes out. I’m really expecting it to be kind of a robust, fairly active deer season.”

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks Herald