Duluth city deer hunt settles into a 'maintenance' stage

With urban population reduced, fewer hunters are taking fewer deer than a decade ago.

Two bucks stand along the railroad tracks in Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood. The 16th annual Duluth archery deer hunt will begin Sep. 19 within the city limits as hunters continue to thin the urban whitetail population. News Tribune / File.

Archery deer hunters will take to the woods across Minnesota on Sept. 19 for the start of another season, including within the city limits of Duluth, where fewer hunters have been taking fewer deer in recent years, a sign the urban hunt is working to reduce deer numbers.

Last year’s 15th annual Duluth city bowhunt saw the fewest deer harvested ever — 179 does and 54 bucks for a total of 233. That’s down 61% from the peak harvest of 604 deer in 2010.

Last season also saw the fewest hunters participate since 2005 (the hunt’s first year) at 283, down from a peak of 391 hunters in 2013.

But rather than a sign of problems with the city hunt, organizers say the declining harvest is a sign of success. The hunt was initiated because the city's urban population of whitetails had exploded out of control, causing headaches for homeowners and gardeners and becoming a danger on city roads.

Duluths’ city deer have it made: Few if any predators, ample food from gardens and yards and plenty of plowed paths to get around on in winter. The urban deer don’t seem to see much impact of harsh winters, either, chowing on bird seed and Illegally placed deer feed (all deer feeding is banned in the city.)


After 15 years of archery seasons, more than 6,600 deer have been taken out of the city by hunters. And by most measures — police accident reports, deer damage and deer sightings - it’s clear the city’s deer population has been greatly reduced, said Brian Borkholder, secretary of the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, the group that administers the hunt.

Borkholder said the hunt has evolved in recent years from population reduction to population maintenance. After peaking in 2010 at over 600 deer killed, the hunt saw declining numbers and then has leveled off just under 300 each year since 2016.

“I think we've accomplished our original goal. I think the city’s deer herd is at an acceptable level right now for a majority of Duluth residents,’’ Borkholder said. “We’re never going to see deer numbers as high as that (when the hunt first started) and that’s a good thing.”

Now, city hunters will try to keep the herd at about the current level.

But that means hunters who grew accustomed to seeing a dozen deer in a single day a decade ago now may have to settle for seeing that many, or fewer, in an entire season, Borkholder noted. And hunters who took advantage of a surplus of big, trophy bucks in the early years of the hunt might be disappointed that fewer giant bucks are available.

“We’ve told our hunters to change their expectations,’’ Borkholder said. That’s caused part of the drop-off in hunter participation, Borkholder noted, as hunters seeking trophies, or seeking to see more deer in general, maybe move on to other areas.

“We are also seeing the result that everyone else is seeing of our deer hunting population aging. We have had some guys age out, who just can’t climb into a tree any more,’’ Borkholder added.

Phillip Lockett, president of the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, said he doesn’t think hunter numbers will drop much more. He noted hunter opportunity — both deer population density and hunter success - is still higher in the city than other areas of the Northland.


“It’s still a great hunt for people who live here. You can get off work at 5 and in 15 minutes be hunting,’’ Lockett noted. “And they are still more likely to see deer in the city than they are outside.”

All city hunters must register early each summer and be assigned a zone to hunt in. They also must pass an annual archery proficiency test. Hunters need permission from private landowners to hunt but can only hunt in designated areas where there are more woods. In more developed neighborhoods the association also will assign hunters to harvest deer in “hot spots’’ where deer seem overly plentiful, but only if neighbors ask for deer reduction.

Continuing the hunt not only keeps the herd down, Borkholder noted, but also is providing some local recreation for hunters close to home: 73% of participants live in the city and 92% live within a few miles of Duluth.

While there have been some issues of a few hunters illegally baiting or growing food plots to attract deer, most hunters appear to be behaving themselves, with few issues. Rules require they stay away from homes and pack out any gut piles from the deer they arrow.

“I think the fact it’s pretty low-profile has been good,” Borkhoder said. “I don’t think most city residents are even aware we are out there doing this every fall. And that probably means we’re doing it right.”

To keep the focus on population reduction and not trophy hunting, city hunters must also shoot an antlerless deer before they can harvest a buck, at least until Thanksgiving, after which point they can take any deer. State regulations allow hunters to harvest up to three deer in Duluth, but only one can be a buck.

Have a heart? Donate it

Again in 2020 Duluth city deer hunters are being asked to save hearts from their harvested whitetail to donate to the University of Minnesota Duluth Medical School.

The med students use them for dissection and anatomy practice. Future surgeons can learn fine and intricate heart anatomy. Fresh hearts have much finer detail in the arteries and capillaries than do chemically preserved ones.


In 2019 43% of hunters participating in the city bow hunt said they donated one or more deer hearts to the cause. Even more are neeed this year to get the med shool the 75 deer hearts it wants.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for hunters to give back to the community that has opened up their backyard for our bowhunting recreation,’’ said Brian Borkholder, secretary of the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance.

Save the heart in a plastic bag. They can be frozen. For more information contact Brian Borkholder at 218-391-2185 or you can drop off the heart at Chalstroms during business hours.

Caleb Mannon descends from his deer stand during the 2015 Duluth city deer hunt. Fewer hunters have bee taking fewer deer during the urban archery hunt in recent years, a sign the city's deer popualtin had declined from high levels a decade ago. News Tribune / File

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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