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Minnesota scales back deer hunt

By John Myers / Duluth News Tribune

 Fewer Minnesota deer hunters will get the chance to shoot antlerless deer this fall, under conservative deer hunting regulations announced Wednesday by the Department of Natural Resources.

Faced with fewer deer in many areas of the state following two severe winters and high hunter harvest rates for the past decade, the DNR has dramatically scaled back antlerless permits.

After years of allowing many hunters to shoot more than one deer, in some cases several deer per year, the DNR will allow hunters to harvest only one deer across 95 percent of the state in 2014.

Northeastern Minnesota hunters will see the most dramatic changes, with much of the area in so-called bucks-only zones where no antlerless permits will be available. That rule will apply to youth and disabled hunters as well.

It’s the first widespread bucks-only regulation since 1997 and is hoped to leave more does in the woods to replenish the population faster.

“This is the most conservative deer hunting season we’ve had in … two decades,’’ said Steve Merchant, the DNR’s wildlife populations and regulations manager.

Only bucks may be shot in 14 deer permit areas in northeastern Minnesota, including areas 108, 117, 118, 119, 122, 126, 127, 169, 176, 177, 178, 180, 181 and 199.

Lottery deer areas, with a few antlerless permits each, include areas 101, 103, 105, 110, 111, 152, 155, 156, 159, 171, 172, 173, 179, 183, 184 and 197.

Only around Duluth, in area 182, can hunters buy up to four extra permits and take up to five deer total. It’s one of the few areas of the state where wildlife managers say far too many deer still roam.

The DNR urged hunters to carefully read the regulation booklets that should soon be available wherever licenses are sold. It may be the first time for many hunters that they can’t shoot a doe, or have to apply for antlerless permits.

Minnesota has nearly 400,000 licensed deer hunters each autumn. DNR officials say they don’t expect a large drop-off in licenses sold because hunters go afield for more reasons than to put venison in the freezer.

The DNR for more than a decade has moved to reduce deer numbers across much of the state, including northeastern Minnesota, encouraging hunters to take many deer to reduce damage caused to agricultural crops and forests and cut back on collisions with vehicles. That effort worked, greatly reducing deer numbers. But then the northern half of the state saw unusually severe winters in 2013 and 2014, reducing deer numbers even more, in many cases below the DNR’s long-term management goals.

“It is true we were very aggressive’’ in offering doe permits and reducing deer numbers for many years, Merchant said. “But the two severe winters is what really packed a punch.”

Not only do some deer die due to exposure and starvation, but many does had only one fawn this spring or none at all. Healthy does usually give birth to two or sometimes three fawns each spring.

“We’re going to have to rely on mother nature to give us a break in order to grow that deer herd back,’’ Merchant said.

The good news, DNR officials said, is that after two tough winters in 1997 and 1997, followed by reduced hunter harvest, deer numbers bounced back within just three years.

Merchant said the total deer harvest this autumn could drop below 150,000 for the first time in decades and could even drop as low as 120,000. In 2013, hunters using firearms, bows and muzzleloader rifles combined to shoot 171,882 deer statewide, already down 40 percent from the record high harvest of 289,017 in 2003.

Mark Johnson, president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the DNR’s conservative approach “is definitely heading in the right direction.”

“Some people are going to complain if it’s bucks only. But most hunters will understand this is going to keep more does on the ground and lead to more fawns next year,” Johnson said. “There’s a learning opportunity here for the youth that there’s more to deer hunting than just taking a deer.”

While many hunters have complained that the DNR allowed the deer herd to drop too far in recent years, Johnson said the DNR’s action this year should help restore faith in the agency’s management abilities.

“It takes a long time to lose the public’s trust and even longer to get it back. But this goes a long way toward getting it back,’’ Johnson said.

In 69 of Minnesota’s 128 deer permit areas, hunters must be chosen through a lottery to shoot an antlerless deer. In 38 areas, hunters have the choice of shooting a doe or a buck. Bonus permits allowing hunters to shoot more than one deer will be available for only seven of the 128 units.

“Many hunters voiced concerns about current deer densities and their hunting experiences in recent years. We heard from hunters at the listening sessions we conducted, in the online comments we solicited and by contacting us directly,” Leslie McInenly, big game program leader for the DNR, said in a statement. “This past winter only added to those concerns so this year’s conservative approach will protect more antlerless deer, reduce the statewide harvest and allow the population to rebound.”

Hunters can enter the lottery for antlerless permits beginning Aug. 1. The deadline to apply is Sept. 4. Hunters may apply using both their firearm and muzzleloader licenses. If hunters are selected for both licenses, they must select the one season in which they want to shoot an antlerless deer.

Deer hunting licenses, lottery applications and special hunt applications are available at any DNR license agent, by telephone at (888) 665-4236 or online Lottery winners will be notified in October.

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