Early bowhunting is underway. The rut is just around the corner for late October and early November. Gun season awaits, highlighted brightly on Minnesota deer hunters’ calendars beginning November 3. Then there’s our ever-popular muzzleloader hunt. Late-season archery finishes everything up.
As Minnesotans, we have no shortage of deer hunting opportunities. By most indications, we have no shortage of whitetails heading into the meat, so to speak, of this year’s seasons. Let’s take a look back at last year’s results, review what last winter’s effect on the herd was, explore prospects around the state for this year’s hunts and touch on Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) management — a topic that should be of concern for every Minnesota deer hunter.
2017 HUNT RESULTS
Minnesota deer hunters shot a grand total of 197,768 whitetails across all of 2017’s hunting seasons, coming within a whisper of that special 200,000 mark. “That was a top-15 harvest all-time,” says Erik Thorson, Acting Big Game Program Leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “It was a good year. There were lots of positive reports. Hunters seemed pleased.”
One look at Minnesota’s deer harvest trends chart tells the story. After record kills in the mid-2000s to trim a burgeoning herd, followed by a couple killer winters at the wrong time that were killers too, smart herd-building season structures by the DNR have brought the herd back to a nice level.
That 197,768 breaks down as follows: 167,500 firearms deer (consisting of 88,467 bucks and 79,033 antlerless animals), 21,058 archery deer and 9,210 muzzleloader whitetails. The overall success rates for hunters were 35.6 percent for firearms seasons, 18.7 percent for archery seasons and 16.6 percent for muzzleloaders.
WINTER 2017-2018 REVIEW
With relatively tight season structures across the state in 2017, there were still good numbers of deer heading into last winter.
“There were some concerns about prolonged winter conditions when cold and especially snowfall started stretching into April,” says Thorson. “Winter did start early in the North, and it extended late everywhere. But there were no significant deer losses in most of the state. That was good.
“That said, some does might have been weakened in the North, and that could have affected fawning success,” Thorson adds. “And despite that late ‘push’ by winter statewide in general, it was just mild edge of average statewide, and our whitetails weathered it pretty well.”
“The Northeast could be an exception, but it’s always challenging up there,” Thorson points out. “Those deer are tough, though. Otherwise, I think our winter will help the northern Minnesota herd grow.”
2018 HUNT PROSPECTS
“Statewide, we are in a real good place with our deer herd, better than we have been in a few years,” says Thorson. “From Southeast to Northwest, up that corridor that represents our prime deer range, there will be some more liberal regulations. Deer are doing well here and need some control. That’s good for hunters interested in venison.
“We are closer to goal in the Northeast and around the Metro and Central Farmlands transition zone. The Southwest is a mixed bag — some units are at goal, some are below, and we need to build those herds some. Deer are pretty vulnerable to hunting there, and antlerless restrictions will remain in place fairly tightly.”
As for gun season, antlerless lottery applications were already due back in September and permits should be in hand. But there are still plenty of buck opportunities, and some units identified as Managed or Intensive Harvest, where antlerless deer are legal without having drawn a lottery permit.
The tight-to-loose season structure descriptors are as follows: Buck Only (one antlered deer) — Hunter Choice (either/or for one deer) — Lottery (antlerless only by drawn permit/one deer) — Managed (2 deer, one antlerless included) — Intensive (multiple antlerless tags without a draw). “Check the deer map,” say Thorson. “In general, we will see some migration to less restrictive seasons, and a few more lottery permits, this year.”
As every Minnesota deer hunter knows, our state’s diverse terrain is really like hunting different states. Here’s a region-by-region rundown of season prospects from Thorson.
*Southeast Hill Country: A herd above goal, with liberalized regulations in the CWD management area. Should be another strong season. Big buck potential is prime.
*Metro: Liberal regulations with good opportunities for those with access, which is the key to success here. But you can get it done on a small parcel.
*Prairie-Farmland Transition Zone (I-94 Corridor): Generally above goal with good hunting prospects. Some of our densest herds reside here. Big buck opportunities continue to grow.
*Big Northeast Woods: Some areas still have recovering whitetail populations below goal, while other areas are at or above goal. As usual, just hunt hard here. It’s more about the experience than deer on the meatpole every year.
*Central Farm-Woods Transition Zone: Generally at, or slightly above, goal. Expect a hunt like last year’s.
*North Central Big Woods: Mostly higher deer densities here than we’ve seen the last few years, and we are at or slightly above goal.
*Southern Farmland and Southwest: A real mixed bag depending on specific unit. Some are below or at goal, some above, but most will have lottery designations.
*Western Prairie Country: Generally slightly above goal here, but we’re still at one-deer bag limits. A different kind of hunt.
CWD MANAGEMENT NOTES
“We have found no additional positive CWD deer outside of that core 603 zone,” says Thorson. “We finished the second year of a three-year sampling study in the central and north-central areas of the state. Things are clean so far. That’s good news.
“But we’re concerned in the Southeast,” Thorson continues. “We will continue to do surveillance there, and in fact expand it. The concern is CWD-positive sparks just over the borders, in both Wisconsin and Iowa.
“Hunters are the managers for keeping CWD under control,” says Thorson. “We need to get deer populations down where there’s CWD. That will help remove CWD-positive deer. And lower herd densities mean less animal-to-animal contact, which can prevent the spread of the disease.” It’s that simple.
CWD management is not fun. At all. It hurts. But hunters need to do their part. Sticking heads in the sand is not going to help. Every Minnesota hunter needs to buy into the DNR’s leadership on CWD issues. Take it from a Minnesotan who calls southwestern Wisconsin his native home and has seen what is going on there on my annual trips back. That’s just one reporter’s opinion.
Will we pass the 200,000-deer mark this season? A betting hunter would say yes, considering a winter that had little effect on the herd, along with some liberalized regulations sprinkled around the state as deer numbers get back to or above goal levels again.
Given some good weather during the gun season, we should see a nice little increase in this year’s deer harvest. Expect harvests to level off sometime soon over the next few years (given average winters). Our herd is in a good place — numbers to hunt, fine bucks, prime venison in freezers, pretty happy hunters.
Count your blessings as a Minnesota deer hunter.
A NEW PLAN
On July 24 of this past summer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released a new deer management plan, the first of its kind in state history. Developed over more than a year with input from a 19-member citizen advisory group representing hunters, foresters, farmers, ecologists and others, the multi-year strategy (2019-2028) is designed to promote and encourage citizen input, ensure habitat quality and set a statewide harvest goal of 200,000 white-tailed deer each year for a healthy, stable population.
While many are quick to notice the 200,000-deer harvest goal, another massive tenet of the plan is engagement, participation and cooperation with Minnesota citizens. In pursuit of this, one major strategy would be an emphasis on providing accessible information to the public, including communicating deer management decisions clearly and in a timely fashion, as well as tracking progress on initiatives.
The plan would create annual discussion opportunities for local citizens to meet with their area wildlife managers to discuss deer management. It also calls for the creation of a statewide deer input committee and discusses increasing staffing in order to help with big game management, communication and public outreach.
An important part of a healthy, stable deer population is, of course, monitoring and addressing diseases within the deer herd. No disease is at the forefront more than CWD.
This is why the plan also provides implementation strategies for limiting and preventing the spread of the disease. These include continued surveillance of wild deer for early detection purposes, enforcing current regulations on imported carcasses, and prohibiting recreational deer feeding and reducing deer densities in CWD management zones.