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Minnesota deer season has decent prospects

Most deer permit areas in northwest Minnesota are at or near deer population goals, according to an official with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

GRAND FORKS - Gone in most areas of northwest Minnesota are the days when hunters could shoot as many as five deer, but there still are enough whitetails on the landscape to provide decent hunting prospects this fall.

Minnesota's deer season opens a half-hour before sunrise Saturday.

"Generally, we expect a good deer season, barring any adverse weather," said Paul Telander, regional wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.

According to Telander, most permit areas in the northwest are at or near deer population goals. As a result, the DNR has tightened bag limits in most areas from last year. There's only one area in the northwest, Permit Area 287 in Itasca State Park, which still falls under the "intensive" management designation that allows for the purchase of up to five tags.

Even "managed areas," which allow one bonus doe tag in addition to the regular license, are limited to four permit areas: 209 and 210 southeast of Thief River Falls; 101, the bovine TB management zone near Skime, Minn.; and permit area 114, the Northwest Angle.

Everywhere else in the northwest is either "hunter's choice," which allows the taking of either a buck or a doe; or lottery, which limits hunters to a buck unless they drew a lottery tag for either sex.

In other words, Telander said, most permit areas have dropped one management level from last year.

Statewide, Minnesota hunters shot 192,331 deer last year, including archery and muzzleloader seasons, a success rate of 34.9 percent. That was down from about 207,000 deer during the three seasons in 2010.

Minnesota's record deer kill occurred in 2003, when hunters shot more than 290,000 deer between the firearm, archery and muzzleloader seasons. Those were the days when hunters in large areas of the state could buy tags to shoot as many as five deer.

As in neighboring North Dakota, an aggressive harvest strategy and a series of three tough winters combined to reduce deer populations in Minnesota. Last year's mild, mostly snow-free winter resulted in good deer survival and production, Telander said, and that should work in hunters' favor.

"Overall, I think deer harvest is expected to be lower than last year, though the buck harvest is likely to be somewhat higher," he said. "When you've got a lot of antlerless hunting opportunities, people tend to shoot more antlerless deer. In years like this, with more lottery areas, there's less opportunity to shoot antlerless deer, so people shoot more bucks."

This year's Minnesota deer opener, which is nearly a week before North Dakota's Nov. 9 opener, falls on the earliest date the season can open, Telander said. State law calls for the firearms season to open the Saturday closest to Nov. 1 but not before Nov. 2.

Whether the earlier opener influences the rut remains to be seen. Typically in northern Minnesota, mating season, when bucks are most active, peaks about Nov. 12, Telander said.

"Some hunters focus on that, but if you spend much time in the woods, you get to that last week in October, and deer activity can really pick up in that time," Telander said. "I suspect that will be the case again this year, but the rut may not be as under way as when the season opens (later)."