2017 Minnesota Deer Forecast
September 19, 2017
The overall white-tailed deer harvest in Minnesota has increased now for two seasons in a row, and there's little evidence that would suggest the trend won't continue when the state's half-million or so hunters head into the fields and woods this fall. Following a decades-low kill of fewer than 140,000 deer in 2014, the total kill rose in both 2015 and 2016 — a trend that state deer managers expected as a result of relatively mild winters as well as conservative deer-hunting regulations that were meant in most parts of the state to increase the numbers in the whitetail herd.
The state's firearms deer season kicks off Saturday, Nov. 4. It runs through Nov. 12 in the 200 and 300 series of permit areas, and through Nov. 19 in the 100 series. The 3B firearms season in the southeastern part of the state runs Nov. 18-26, and the statewide muzzleloader season is Nov. 25 to Dec. 10. Wildlife officials don't have a specific estimate of the number of deer our hunters will kill, but they believe it will be higher than it was in 2016, as long as the weather cooperates.
"I suspect it will be a good fall for Minnesota's deer hunters," said Adam Murkowski, big-game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "Hunters did well last fall and harvested a good number of deer. If you look at individual permit areas and aggregates of permit areas, it becomes clear that the harvest strategy last year still allowed for deer-population growth. It's important going into this fall that we take steps to manage deer in a way that keeps the herd healthy. That's going to result in increased opportunities for hunters. It's in everyone's best interest to have an appropriate number of deer out there on the landscape."
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Following high harvests in the early to mid-2000s — including in 2003, when hunters killed more than 290,500 whitetails, which remains a record-high harvest for Minnesota — severe winters played a role in holding down the deer population, especially in the northern part of Minnesota. The total kill in 2014 was less than half what it was in 2003. (It's worth noting, however, that even following that record-setting 2003 season, DNR wildlife officials said a harvest that high wasn't sustainable.) While the statewide deer population currently is trending upward, there are some concerns, too, Murkowski said.
<blockquote>"The loss of (Conservation Reserve Program grassland acres) and other habitat is very concerning, especially in the farmland portion of the state," he said. "If you look just at the cover, there's already not a lot of cover available in some of those permit areas (in western and southern Minnesota), so if you take away even more, that's a tough spot to be in. That doesn't translate into more hunting opportunities. There are a lot of concerns with some habitat issues that's gone — or is about to go — and what they mean for deer and deer management going forward."<blockquote/>
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior.
(Via North American Whitetail)
Indeed, in many of southwestern Minnesota's permit areas, wildlife managers have a hard time increasing the deer population. While there's some habitat within an otherwise heavily agricultural area, it's generally not enough to support high deer densities. In fact, in some of the state's southwestern permit areas, deer goals range from about 4 to 7 deer per 1 mile. As a result, hunters in that part of the state generally are limited to hunting for bucks if they aren't successful in the annual lottery for antlerless permits. Deer numbers generally are good in the state's southeastern part, where antler-point restrictions are in place in many permit areas. However, there are pockets in that part of the state where wildlife managers believe the deer density is too high, which is why they offer special early seasons in mid- to late October, during which hunters can shoot antlerless deer.
"Throughout the state, we have areas — often localized areas — where there are too many deer," Murkowski said. "And that's often a function of people not recognizing the importance of harvesting adequate numbers of antlerless deer."
The highest deer densities in Minnesota, according to Murkowski, occur in the central and transition zones where the prairies give way to forests. One of the prime examples is Permit Area 241, which includes an area north of Highway 10 and east of Detroit Lakes. Almost without fail, hunters kill thousands more deer in that permit area each fall than in any of the state's other permit areas. There are good numbers of deer throughout the northwestern part of the state, too, though deer densities are lower in the northeastern portion, where recent winters have been more severe than elsewhere in the state. In addition, deer predation always is a consideration in the state's Arrowhead region.
"No one is denying that everything likes to eat deer, and particularly fawns," Murkowski said. "But that is something that's accounted for when we make our management decisions."
Still, it's important for hunters to realize that deer in the northeastern part of the state often make use of traditional wintering areas where they can hole up and have food and shelter during tough winters. Fewer, or smaller, wintering areas reduce the capacity of the landscape to hold deer, and when the animals are restricted to smaller wintering areas, they become more susceptible to predation, Murkowski said.
For each of the state's 128 permit areas, there's a deer-population goal. The DNR has set those goals in previous years with input from advisory groups that include hunters and others with an interest in deer. Each year, DNR wildlife managers review harvest data from the previous season and talk with hunters about what they saw. As managers start formulating their ideas for the coming season, DNR research staff runs computerized models that estimate the populations in each permit area. Researchers then propose a regulatory structure for each permit area that they believe would result in bringing the herd up toward the goal, down toward the goal, or maintaining the goal level.
As such, some permit areas will offer more liberal hunting regulations this fall, but Murkowski doesn't envision anything too much different than in recent years. "I don't think there are any large, structural changes on the horizon," he said.
That said, the DNR is changing the boundaries of some permit areas, so hunters should pay attention to the regulations booklet. In addition, the agency is altering the boundaries of permit areas in the moose range of northeastern Minnesota. Within those permit areas, according to the DNR, the deer population will be held at lower but stable densities in an effort to help the region's struggling moose population. Deer will be managed for higher densities outside the primary moose range.
"Ongoing research has strengthened the understanding of disease and parasite transmission from deer to moose," reports the DNR. "Deer are the primary host which transmit fatal brain worm and liver fluke infestations to moose. Managing deer at lower, but stable numbers in primary moose range will reduce disease transmission and allow for habitat and other management activities to benefit moose."
MINNESOTA'S 2017 CWD TESTING PLAN
Since the early 2000s, wildlife officials in Minnesota have tested thousands of white-tailed deer in the state for chronic wasting disease. Until last year, they'd found just one animal in the wild that tested positive. That all changed in November of 2016, when two hunter-harvested wild deer tested positive near Lanesboro in southeastern Minnesota.
As the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources kept testing deer harvested during special seasons and by federal sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the total number of positive deer from the area was 11. The agency created a special permit area in the southeastern part of the state — Permit Area 603 — that it now considers a CWD zone. This fall, the antler-point restrictions in place in the rest of southeastern Minnesota won't be in place in 603, and hunters there will be able to buy permits to shoot an unlimited number of antlerless deer, said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager. Hunters who kill a deer there have to submit a sample for testing.
"Every adult deer that dies in that permit area is going to get a CWD test," Cornicelli said.
Additionally, the DNR will be conducting CWD surveillance in other parts of the state where captive deer on game farms tested positive in 2016. Hunters around those game farms in Crow Wing and Meeker counties have to submit harvested animals for testing. Depending on outcomes of tests at other captive facilities, the agency may conduct surveillance in other parts of the state, too, Cornicelli said.