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Higher deer harvest predicted; hunter expectations up, too

Hunters are looking forward to higher deer numbers this season. (Photo by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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