Entering its 15th season, the Duluth city archery hunt for deer appears to have done its job, trimming the city’s burgeoning herd of whitetails while also providing some fun for bowhunters.
The city bow hunt, which will start Saturday when Minnesota's archery hunting season begins, so far has taken 6,383 deer out of the city and by all accounts has reduced the population well below levels before the hunt started in 2005.
There are fewer complaints to city and wildlife officials about deer munching shrubs and gardens. And there are markedly fewer calls to Duluth police about car-deer collisions.
There also a fewer deer being taken by hunters as the deer population thins — hunter success rates are dropping from super high to just above average — and now fewer hunters are applying to hunt within the city limits.
Hunters registered only 240 deer in the city last season, the smallest number since the hunt began in 2005 and down a whopping 60% from the peak harvest of 604 in 2010.
In 2005, 92% of the city hunters took at least one deer. Last year that dropped to 55%.
“There's no question that the deer herd has declined significantly,’’ said Brian Borkholder, secretary of the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, the nonprofit group that administers and oversees the city hunt each season.
Overall hunter numbers have declined, too, from a peak of 391 in 2013 to just 285 hunters in 2018, the fewest since the city hunt was still gearing-up in 2006.
This season, which runs from Sep. 14 to Dec. 31, hunters can take up to three deer each but, though November, must take one antlerless deer before harvesting a buck. Each hunter had to preregister for the hunt, qualify by showing their archery proficiency and is assigned a specific zone in the city to hunt.
Results are obvious
Before the city bow hunt began, Duluth police were responding to an average of one deer-vehicle crash every shift in October and November, peak time for deer movement during the mating season, and hundreds of crashes every year.
Over the first eight months so far in 2019, there have been only 37 car-deer crashes reported to city police, according to police records. (Deer crashes weren't specified in accident reports in earlier years.)
“It’s been a pretty remarkable decline in deer numbers. When I used to work midnights, you’d see deer everywhere in the city,” said Lt. Andy Mickus, who has been with the Duluth Police Department since 1996. “Now, you just don’t see as many.”
Chris Balzer, wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for the region, said his interaction with Duluth residents complaining about deer has fallen off dramatically
“A few years ago it was a big deal. But I’m not getting those calls now from Duluth,’’ Balzer said.
Of course, there are still plenty of deer within the city limits, thriving in a mix of gardens, ornamental shrubs and plants and what they can find in the city’s dense tracts of woods. There also are quite a few people who violate a city ordinance and feed deer, or who put bird food within easy reach of deer snouts.
Moreover, there are simply some neighborhoods where, while deer can thrive, bowhunting is not practical or possible because of a high density of housing or industry and a low density of woods.
Borkholder said he believes the city deer herd may be as low as it can go, given hunter constraints. But it also may be about where the public wants it. It's hoped the annual hunt will continue to keep the population about where it is now.
“I don't believe that the hunters will be able to lower the herd any longer. I think we're at the low point. … Hunters, especially bow hunters, have never demonstrated the ability to eradicate a population of deer,” he said. “Deer are just too adaptable and can move (or) hide in too many areas inaccessible to recreational hunters. Which may not be a bad thing. I don't think anyone really wants the deer herd eradicated.”
While success rates aren't as high as the heyday of a decade ago, they are still good. A participant in the city bow hunt averages at least one deer every 2 years as opposed to the statewide Minnesota average of 1 deer every 5.4 years. The city hunt also still is serving a noble purpose as the bowhunter's alliance 2018 report noted.
"A new definition for success should be the continued opportunity for our bowhunters to participate in a sport that is a passion of many (and do it) in our own backyard,'' the report concluded. "Continuing this opportunity provides services to our community by keeping the herd at current levels, one seemingly accepted by gardeners, homeowners and those that drive vehicles and have to dodge darting deer during the autumn months."