Minnesota wildlife managers have scaled back the number of deer they hope to see shot in parts of Northeastern Minnesota this autumn, with fewer doe permits available in many management areas after a tougher-than-average winter.
That includes two bucks-only management areas where deer populations still remain well below goals set by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — areas 119 and 132. Area 132 had 400 doe permits in 2018 but felt the effects of a severe two months of core winter early in 2019 and where wildlife managers want to play it safe.
The tough winter and expected lower fawn production also lead to reductions in population estimates in area 131, which had been hunters choice in 2018 but now has only 50 doe permits available; area 111, which had been hunters choice but will now have 500 doe permits; area 118, which had been 400 doe permits in 2018 but has only 50 now; area 169, which saw doe permits trimmed in half from 1,000 to 500. Area 126 saw a slight reduction from 200 permits to 150; area 199 from 150 permits to 100.
Hunters who want to shoot antlerless deer in areas where lottery permits are needed have until Thursday to apply.
“We have some areas that are down because we had a tough winter. And then we have some others, like 132, that have some longer-term habitat issues that need to change before we’ll see much change in deer numbers,” said Tom Rusch, DNR wildlife manager based in Tower.
Area 132 has been logged intensively in recent years, with ample small aspen for deer to eat. But all that logging also has removed critical winter deer habitat and makes deer more vulnerable to winter weather, Rusch said.
In area 119, which has been bucks only for seven seasons in a row, winter had a more profound impact.
“That’s where we saw 40 percent mortality” in one intensive deer research project in the Orr area, Rusch noted.
Still, the brutal core winter, with deep snow on the ground for months in some areas and weeks of below-zero temperatures, may not have been as hard on deer numbers as some wildlife managers originally expected.
“We’re seeing good fawn production in most areas, with two (fawns with each doe) in most cases. … And even in our area up around Tower and Ely, we’re seeing one fawn,” Rusch said. “We didn’t see a lot of does with no fawns. And we didn't find dead deer in the woods like we did in 1996. So (winter) ended fast enough so maybe it didn’t do as much damage.”
Indeed, some areas of Northeastern Minnesota have a surplus deer population. The Duluth-Hermantown area, including several nearby townships in the arc around Duluth, will again be intensive management areas open for hunters to take up to three deer.
There are also several hunter choice areas — one deer of either sex can be taken — including in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where wildlife managers are hoping to see low deer numbers to help moose recover, and along parts of the North Shore where deer are eating white pine seedlings.
Chris Balzer, wildlife manager in the Cloquet area, said hunters just south and west of Duluth should see “about the same number of deer they saw last year.”
“We had some impact from winter, more to the north and then (winter) dropped off pretty quickly going south. But I think we have consistent deer numbers" with 208, Balzer said.
Most of the areas in Balzer's district are either lottery antlerless permits or hunters choice, with one deer of either sex allowed.
If you want to see (and shoot) more deer, go farther west or south in Minnesota. Areas of the Northland that have more small farms also tend to have higher deer numbers, with hay, alfalfa and other crops offering deer extra nutrition. As managed deer areas, Area 155 east of Aitkin allows two deer per hunter, as does Area 184 north of Bemidji.
What do deer management area’s annual designations tell you about the local deer population?
Minnesota DNR wildlife managers have few tools to control populations. They can’t control weather or wolves, for the most part, and habitat takes years to manipulate. But they can control the number of antlerless deer shot, the driving force in deer populations.
You can quickly tell what deer populations are in any given management area by the annual designation:
Bucks only: Deer population is significantly below goal, preserves does and fawns to rebuild deer numbers.
Lottery doe permits: Deer population below goal; allows for continued population increase depending on winter severity.
Hunters choice: Allows for more antlerless deer to be shot and means the population is at goal, right in the sweet spot.
Managed: The local population is higher than the DNR and others want to see; allows for extra antlerless deer to be shot.
Intensive: Local deep population is well above goals and allows for multiple antlerless deer to be shot to reduce deer numbers.
Youth hunt options will mirror each area management category
Minnesota will hold its first-ever statewide youth deer hunting season from Oct. 17-20. Hunters ages 10-17 will be able to shoot antlerless deer in areas where lottery permits or hunters choice are allowed.
In the few areas that are bucks only for the general firearms hunting season, youths will have to shoot a buck, said Tom Rusch, Tower area wildlife manager.
“We didn’t think it was right to allow youth to take antlerless deer in areas where we say the population is well below goal,’’ Rusch said. “I think it’s good for kids to understand from the start that deer aren't necessarily an unlimited resource."
Chronic wasting disease Area 604
A new deer management area has been created around a former deer farm where multiple deer were found to have chronic wasting disease, the always-fatal deer disease. CWD also has been found in one wild deer in the area.
Area 608 covers a large area east of Aitkin, south of Emily, north of Brainerd and east of Lake Shore.
Hunters in 608 will be able to shoot one buck and an unlimited number of antlerless deer this season in an effort to cull the herd and reduce the chance CWD might spread. All deer shot will be tested by the DNR to see if CWD has already spread. An extra, early hunting season also is in the works for the CWD area.
No deer feeding, attractants in several counties
Deer feeding and attractants — and that means sprays and liquids, too — are banned all year now in several southeastern Minnesota counties as well as Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd and Wadena in north-central Minnesota. Find more information on feeding and attractant bans at mndnr.gov/cwd/feedban.html. Wildlife managers believe human feeding of deer brings the animals closer together, increasing the chances of CWD spreading.