Minnesota's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

The main reason we won't set a new harvest record this season is because fewer hunters are going afield. That's too bad, because there are new opportunities all around our state. (Nov 2006)

Minnesota is very geographically diverse. We have prairies, plains, grain fields, peat lands, plateaus, oak savannahs, large stands of conifers, river bottoms, vast wetlands and numerous areas where these habitats overlap one another. Add to the mix the urban core around the Twin Cities, and you have a wide variety of deer hunting opportunities.

"It's amazing to think about all that diverse habitat and the fact that 80 percent of the state has deer all over the place," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "You might have some places where there are 30 deer per acre, and yet parts of The Arrowhead or far southwest might only have two to five deer per acre."

Point being, Minnesota is full of white-tailed deer, and hunters would be missing out on some great opportunities if they stayed home this November.

"The deer herd is looking pretty good, and 2006 will be a good year," said Lou Cornicelli, Big-Game Program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The record kill of 290,000 deer set in 2003 will be difficult to beat simply because there are fewer hunters going afield with every season. The total harvest in 2005 was 255,736, of which 214,957 were taken by firearms hunters -- a full 84 percent of the overall harvest. That was down from 2004, but it was still the third-highest deer kill in Minnesota. Yet, Cornicelli remained optimistic.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we don't have upward of 250,000 again," he commented.

One of the reasons the kill went down last year is because the number of licenses sold to firearms hunters dropped from 634,634 to 626,211. The record number of licenses sold came in 2003 -- our record deer harvest season -- with almost 649,000 purchased that year.

Perhaps the best news when it comes to the number of licenses sold is because in 1995, only 1,835 youth licenses were sold, while in 2005 that number skyrocketed to 50,501. Getting youngsters involved in deer hunting will ensure its future.

Some hunters say that they haven't bought a license in recent years because the herd size is decreasing and it's tougher to kill a deer. The numbers show some merit to that claim, with a 34.3 percent success rate in 2005 compared with rates in the 40s during the early 1990s. The good news is that the success rate for bowhunters has jumped up in that same period, and muzzleloaders today are more successful than they were in 2000.

"Everybody was all crazy last year because they thought there weren't as many deer as the DNR said there were, but that was merely their perspective from their hunt," Johnson said.

He believes the DNR's numbers, and said the perception was different because the 2005 hunt was warmer than usual, thus promoting deer movement at night or near water.

"The deer move to where it's cool when they have their winter coats on, and so they relaxed and cooled down during the day, choosing to move at night or in the evening," Johnson said.

In late May and early June of this year, the DNR conducted an online survey for hunters to weigh in on their thoughts about deer populations in northeast and north-central Minnesota. The online survey required hunters to view a presentation about the area before they could weigh in with their opinions. The results of the survey will be combined with other public input and a decision on deer populations will be made for each permit area.

Even with those deep snow depths, Lenarz said the winter was moderate compared with the harsh winters of a decade ago.

"Everywhere else, it was mild and didn't affect the herd," he added.

A significant portion of the forest region is being examined by a variety of stakeholders, including hunters, landowners and business owners. The DNR pulled these folks together in 2005 and earlier this year to determine if the number of deer per square mile is adequate. The process revealed there's a desire to reduce deer numbers throughout the forest, which is good news for hunters looking to kill more than one whitetail this season. Check the regulations and the map to see which permit areas are down and which ones have increased. Also, check the managed and intensive harvest permit areas that have increased since 2005.

FARMLAND HERD STATUS

Minnesota's farmland zone is an interesting one that stretches from the northwest corner all the way down through the Twin Cities to where Minnesota runs into Wisconsin and Iowa. Points west of St. Cloud and Alexandria are part of this zone as well. All of Zone 4 is located in this region, not to mention most of Zone 3 and a portion of Zone 2.

The buck harvest is very high in this region of the state because the wood lots where bucks tend to hunker down are fragmented. This allows hunters to focus on small patches of CRP and small ravines, and achieve a relatively high rate of success.

"It's very difficult to generalize the region because it's so different from permit area to permit area," said Marrett Grund, the DNR's deer project leader with the Farmland Wildlife Populations & Research Group. "Something we are finding in the southwestern portion of the state is that we have the highest yearling buck harvest in the state, with 75 percent."

That number is the highest in Minnesota, but it's not as high as he has ever seen. When he was in Pennsylvania, there was part of the state where 90 percent of the yearling bucks were killed.

"Still, that area is where our highest buck harvest rate can be found," Grund added.

Grund said the extreme south and south-central portion of the farmland have seen deer densities decline, so they are backing off the antlerless allocations a bit to allow populations to stabilize and increase. Another area where deer densities are actually declining is around Lac qui Parle.

"Deer densities have declined over the last 10 years fairly steadily, and we'd like to be more aggressive in stopping that decline or to at least stabilize the deer density where it's at," Grund said.

The rest of the farmland region is full of deer, Grund added, and the spigot is wide open for harvesting as many antlerless deer as possible. But one of the challenges of this area is finding a place to hunt because only 2 percent is public land. Because of the lack of public a

ccess, the DNR has to manage the area with landowner concerns in mind. While many landowners are also hunters, their first priority is not always deer hunting.

"We are trying to get more deer programs and policies with what landowners are willing to accept," Grund said.

To figure out what will work, the DNR is conducting research and surveying landowners to see if hunter access is going up or down.

"It's anecdotal evidence right now, but it seems as if more and more of the farmland -- particularly around the north metro and southeast corner -- is being posted, and landowners are not allowing hunters access to their land," Grund said. "We're asking landowners what are the conditions where they would allow hunters on their land, and then try to figure out a way to 'incentivize' them to allowing access."

The primary focus of this research will be in those areas where more and more urbanites are spreading out and buying five- to 10-acre lots.

"A lot of them don't know anything about hunting and don't care about it," Grund noted. "One of our hypotheses is that they are less likely to allow hunting."

REGULATION CHANGES

Some would argue that the 2006 Legislative Session was a waste of time because dedicated funding never made it onto the ballot, but there were a few votes that worked out for hunters.

A vote to change the All-Season Deer License this year passed, so that it now includes three tags with it.

The rifle/shotgun boundary was moved, and hunters should check the regulations for the exact location of the change.

The other change that hunters will find handy is how you tag your deer. It used to be that you had to tag the deer at the kill site and run the risk of having the tag pull off as you dragged the deer out. Now the tag can be applied once you are out of the thick stuff and ready to transport the deer in a vehicle. Check the regulations for the specific language on this one as well as other changes you are expected to know.

MORE BIG-BUCK OPTIONS

The Multi-Zone Buck License option experienced a decline in both the number of hunters and deer killed last year, most likely because more people are purchasing the All-Season Deer License. That's not to say they weren't successful, however, because one out of every five licensees with the Multi-Zone Buck License bagged a buck last year.

By far, the most Multi-Zone Buck License tags are filled by hunters in permit areas 410, 411, 412, 413 and 414 in west-central Minnesota. Two-thirds of all Multi-Zone Buck License holders killed their buck in Zone 4.

For this upcoming season, several permit areas are being switched from Zone 4 into Zone 2, meaning that hunters will now be able to harvest a deer of either sex through a nine-day season. In the past, hunters have had to purchase a Multi-Zone Buck License and bonus permits to take full advantage of the opportunities the areas had to offer. It makes for more hunting opportunities for the cost of a regular firearms license.

The permit areas being shifted for 2006 include 410, 411, 413, 414, 415, 419 and 429. These changes are not yet reflected on the map on page 20 of this magazine, because those numbers are based on the 2005 season. Be sure to read the 2006 regulations and study the new map if this is your hunting area. Read the regulations and study the map even if that's not your area, because there will be several other changes to know as well.

So, even though the number of youth deer hunting licenses is going through the roof, the overall number of hunters in Minnesota is declining. It could mean fewer hunters in your area, but bring a friend along this year who has either never hunted before or has taken a few years off. Even if they don't want to hunt, invite them to come along. The future of deer hunting depends on growing the sport and making more people aware of it as a key part of our heritage.

Find more about Minnesota fishing and hunting at: MinnesotaSportsmanMag.com

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.