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Higher Minnesota deer harvest predicted

When Minnesota’s deer season ends Sunday, Dec. 31, it is quite likely the harvest will be in the 200,000 range.

This Minnesota Department of Natural Resources projection is above last year’s harvest of 173,213, below the 2003 record harvest of 290,525 and similar to the most recent 20-year average of 205,959. Prior to 2000, deer harvests in excess of 200,000 occurred only four times.

Deer harvest totals typically relate to the size of the deer population and to a lesser degree to weather conditions immediately before and during the hunting season.

On the 2017 season
This should be a good deer season barring any unforeseen unusual weather. Deer numbers are up following three years of conservative harvest regulations designed to rebuild the population, coupled with three relatively mild winters. As a result, more antlerless permits are available this year, and hunters in many parts of the state will have additional opportunities to harvest more deer because of other more liberal season framework changes. Unfavorable weather, like heavy snowfall immediately before or during the hunting season, is the main factor that would prevent a harvest increase.

On putting 2017 in context
The highest deer harvests occurred during the early to mid-1990s and from 2000-2008. During this latter period, the harvest topped 200,000 each year. The high harvests in the early 2000s occurred at a time when the over-riding harvest strategy was to reduce the deer population so it wouldn’t grow out of control, as had happened in certain eastern states, and to address certain environmental, economic and social concerns. Deer harvests in excess of 225,000 occurred only once in the 1990s. Going further back, the harvests in the 1970s never topped 100,000. The harvests in the 1980s were under 150,000. Today, there’s growing discussion in the hunting community as to what’s a reasonable harvest target, and that’s a good conversation to have.

On managing toward population goals
Our aim is to keep deer numbers at population goals identified during DNR’s periodically occurring public goal-setting processes. There are 130 different deer permit areas throughout the state, and nearly all permit areas have a numeric population goal range. Population goals range from as low as a handful of deer per square mile in intensively farmed areas to 20 to 25 deer per square mile in prime forested areas. A few permit areas are too small or have too low of a harvest to model the local population.

Deer numbers are at or have exceeded population goals over most of the state. Some northeast and southwest permit areas are slightly below goal. Parts of central Minnesota and southeastern Minnesota are above goal. From an overall, statewide perspective, we’re not far from where we believe Minnesota should be.

On DNR transparency
Many hunters are curious as to how we make our decisions on antlerless permit numbers and season structure, and that’s something we are trying to more effectively communicate. The process starts immediately after the deer season closes. That’s when area wildlife supervisors and staff monitor deer harvest results in their local areas and collect informal feedback from hunters, conservation officers, foresters and others.

In spring, after winter severity has been monitored and deer mortality losses have been estimated, research staff run population models for each permit area based on the last year’s harvest, winter mortality, anticipated fawn births, predation and other data. These calculations are the basis of research staff recommendations for season permit area designations (lottery, managed, intensive harvest, etc.) and the number of antlerless permits that should be made available to hunters in each lottery permit area in order to achieve population goals.

Research staff recommendations are sent to all area wildlife supervisors, who then have the option of agreeing with them or modifying them based on their own local observations and informal input. Often, these recommendations agree with each other, but not always. When this happens, differences get resolved at the regional or St. Paul office level.

Ultimately, the agreed upon season structures and number of permits to be issued for each area are communicated to hunters through the multi-colored deer map that is part of the hunting regulations booklet and a new, more informative interactive deer map on the DNR website at mndnr.gov/deermap.

On managing expectations
That’s perhaps the hardest part of deer management, and it’s often a function of scope and scale. Our agency’s focus is on the big picture and a half million hunters. Conversely, the individual hunter is most interested in what’s happening within their immediate hunting area, which is often as little as 40 acres.

It’s not well-known but among 13 Midwestern states, only Missouri manages deer populations at a finer spatial scale than Minnesota. We are serious about managing expectations and deer numbers in small geographic areas. Still, it is common to have a wide variety of opinions in each area on whether there should be more, fewer or different sized deer. To that point, we recently conducted a hunter satisfaction survey and one of the findings is that today’s hunters have higher expectations than those who hunted just 10 years ago.

On communicating with hunters
When I began my career it was common to interact with hunters at deer registration stations and local field offices. Today with the ease, convenience and popularity of phone and internet game registration, the DNR no longer has staff at deer registration stations. And people don’t visit DNR offices like they once did because so much information is available on the DNR website.

Our challenge is finding new and efficient ways to have two-way conversations with hunters. This past winter we received more than 1,400 comments during a three-month long deer management plan public input effort. We were pleased with the response yet those 1,400 comments from an engaged and important audience represent only a minute fraction of the hunting public.

There’s an irony in the fact that even though it is easier to be connected to one another these days because of smartphones and other technology, many people feel less connected than they once did. Figuring out how to maintain strong relations with hunters and other stakeholders is something on which we need to keep working.

Minnesota’s first-ever deer plan will outline key concepts and crucial, ongoing work needed to manage deer, one of the state’s most popular and economically vibrant natural resources. An important aspect of the plan is how DNR will reach out and communicate deer management needs, necessary actions and reasons for those actions.

A draft plan will be available in early 2018. I encourage everyone to read the draft plan, consider DNR’s suggested approach and give us your feedback and ideas through the public input opportunities we’ll make available.

DNR regional wildlife managers give rundown of what deer hunters can expect

Hunters will have additional opportunities to harvest deer this season thanks to a series of mild winters and conservative hunting regulations, which have resulted in rebounding deer populations across Minnesota.

Firearms deer season opens Saturday, Nov. 4, and there are 130 permit areas in 2017. Information about each permit area can be found on the DNR’s interactive deer map at mndnr.gov/deermap, and includes wildlife manager reports, regulations, and statistics about deer harvest and populations on a local scale.

Northwest deer report
John Williams, northwest region wildlife manager

More deer on the landscape in the northwest region should help hunters better enjoy the season and have good prospects for a successful hunt.

Another mild winter on top of the previous two mild winters has largely enabled deer populations to be at or near goal levels in most permit areas. Fawn production was also good this year; another indication of does coming through the winter in good health.

Recent rains have filled basins that were previously dry due to drought-like conditions in late summer, and water levels are up on many of the marshes and lakes in the region. Hunters should be prepared to deal with wetter than average conditions if they are hunting in or need to cross lowland areas.

In general, hunters will be able to harvest more deer. In several permit areas the designations changed to allow more overall harvest. Some permit areas moved from a designation of lottery, which requires hunters to apply in advance to shoot an antlerless deer, to a hunters choice designation that allows a hunter to use one license to shoot either a buck or antlerless deer.

Other permit areas changed designations from hunters choice to managed. In permit areas designated as managed, hunters can harvest two deer through use of a regular license and a bonus antlerless permit. Permit areas that did stay in the lottery designation this year may have more permits available than in previous years.

Northeast deer report
Dave Olfelt, northeast region wildlife manager

Three consecutive, relatively mild winters have contributed to good fawn production and high numbers of twin births. Snow depth was moderate throughout much of the region and a relatively early green-up of forage has supported deer that appear to be in excellent physical condition.

Where good habitat exists, deer populations are approaching or are at established population goals. While deer are not evenly distributed within permit areas because of habitat differences and varying levels of hunting pressure, harvest regulations have relaxed in many northern Minnesota permit areas to allow more deer harvest. Duluth, several Iron Range cities and some state parks continue to hold special hunts to reduce deer numbers.

Rain and wet conditions have persisted throughout much of the fall season. Hunters may find water in areas that are typically dry this time of year and forest road access may be difficult or impassable in some locations.

Hunters in far northeastern Minnesota’s primary moose range should review the new deer permit area maps for boundary and numbering changes.

Central deer report
Jami Markle, assistant central region wildlife manager

“Deer are everywhere” is a common refrain across the central region this fall. Deer populations seem to have bounced back from a decline following the severe winter of 2013-2014.

In fact, many deer permit areas in the region have met or are above population goals, meaning more permits will be available this fall. With rebounding deer populations and ample hunter opportunities, wildlife managers are anticipating a strong harvest in 2017.

Deer look healthy as they shed their reddish summer coats for the more muted gray-brown tones that will carry them through the winter. Summer habitat conditions were ideal with an excellent growing season and plentiful native forage and cover. Does with twin fawns seem to be the norm rather than the exception this year.

Wildlife managers and landowners have noted an abundant acorn crop in the central and southeast portion of the region this fall which will keep deer feeding and browsing in the oak woods.

Wet conditions in late September and early October have postponed agricultural harvest so hunters may see standing crops well into the firearms season. Fall leaf drop is reported to be later than normal in the southern part of the state, but by early November sightlines should be opened up and the forest floor will have a new layer of fallen leaves. Buck scrapes and rubs are starting to appear and hunters can expect to see deer movement and patterns change as the rut approaches.

Many permit areas in the central region are designated as managed this year, allowing harvest of two deer through the use of a regular license and a bonus antlerless permit. Five permit areas are designated as intensive, which allows for harvest of three deer using additional bonus permits. There are additional harvest opportunities in the 601 metro deer management area and the 603 chronic wasting disease management zone, both of which offer harvest of an unlimited number of antlerless deer.

Southwest deer report
David Trauba, southwest region wildlife manager

Two consecutive mild winters coupled with past conservative harvest strategies have allowed deer numbers to increase throughout southwestern Minnesota. In addition, wildlife managers reported good fawn production. As a result, more antlerless permits were provided for this fall’s hunting season. However, permits numbers continue to be low in select permit areas, mostly in extreme southwest, due to the loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres. Managers in these permit areas are having a difficult time increasing deer numbers due to limited habitat availability.

Conversely, hunters need to be aware that permit areas 281 and 290 moved to a hunters choice designation for the first time due to an abundance of deer along the Minnesota River corridor.

Two wild cards for hunters will be the amount of standing crops and river flooding. Historically the amount of standing crops drives opening weekend hunter harvest along with weather conditions. Large rainfall amounts in mid-October have resulted in flooded fields and river flooding. Crop harvest is behind schedule but this can change very quickly so it is too early to predict what amount of crops will be in the field, if any, before opening day. However, hunters should prepare for high water in select river corridors; the high water can influence deer use of these habitats. Many deer have been forced out of the river valleys into the surrounding uplands. As always, hunters need to scout and adapt to conditions.