Minnesota's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Minnesota's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

With a series of moderate deer seasons behind us, will this be the year things turn around? Here are the answers you've been waiting for.

There are few other states in the nation with as many different styles of whitetail hunting available to a hunter as can be found in Minnesota. There are rolling prairies with ridgelines and creek bottoms to hunt in the southwest; wooded ravines cutting through fertile croplands in the southeast; vast cedar swamps with massive timber stands in the north; mixed hardwood forests stretching across the mid-section; and a unique blend of two or more of each habitat in those millions of overlapping acres.

Throughout each of those habitats, Minnesota's deer herd is solid for the 2010 season. Archers have been in the woods since mid-September, but October brings additional opportunities to our deer hunters.

One of the reasons for the strong health of our deer herd is due to last year's winter, which was mild and nicely complimented by the second warmest spring on record.

"If you go on the DNR Web page and check the statistics for 2009's Winter Severity Index you'll find that this past winter was essentially a non-event," said Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "We had an excellent spring, and that helped even those few deer that came through the winter in rough shape."

The only thing that kills more deer than deer hunters is a severe winter and Minnesota's deer herd has benefited from more than a decade of relatively mild ones. The last significant winter is now 15 years in the past and every year the deer herd has the opportunity to grow if hunters don't do their part to keep it in check.

Even with all that good news, some Minnesota hunters are hanging their heads low because they haven't seen as many deer in the past few seasons as they did only a few years prior. For the fourth year in a row, our deer season has had a lower overall harvest than the one before it.

The overall harvest in 2009 -- including archery, firearms and muzzleloader -- dipped below 200,000 for the first time in a decade. In the past 17 hunting seasons, only four have had lower harvest numbers and those came after a series of brutal winters.

So what's going on? Is deer hunting in Minnesota gradually coming to an end? Why are game managers so optimistic about the overall health of the herd, and why are knowledgeable hunters and hunting organizations optimistic? Is this reduction a trend?

The simple answer is that this drawdown in the population was completely by design. Those "good old days" of harvest rates topping 250,000 that existed for five seasons, from 2003 to 2007 were done because Minnesota's herd was growing too big for its own good.

"Statewide, we've put a lot of effort in lowering deer densities and it has been effective in most areas. We're getting the population to where we'd like it to be with regards to density in most parts of the state and that shows on the permit area map in the 2010 regulation book," Cornicelli said.

Deer density is a difficult subject, but one of the keys to a healthy herd is making sure that a specific habitat has the carrying capacity for a specific species. In the case of the white-tailed deer, especially across the forest zone, they were eating themselves out of house and home and possibly setting the stage for a rough winter to become especially brutal. High deer densities impact plant growth and forest regeneration, not to mention creating more social problems such as deer-vehicle accidents and destruction of private property. Long story short, the herd needed to be reduced in density and Minnesota hunters did their job quite effectively.

Check the tables accompanying this article and you'll see some top permit areas around the state based on last year's harvest numbers. The jury is out, however, as to how much this information helps hunters looking to explore new hunting lands for 2010.

Having written this deer outlook for the past six years, I've noticed a definite trend of the same permit areas showing up year after year. Sometimes it is a simple matter of flip-flopping a permit area or two within the top five, but they follow the same trends. The same basic areas that produce large numbers of deer each year also are some of the heaviest hunted.

There's good hunting to be had throughout Minnesota's 87 counties and 166 deer hunting permit areas from year to year. But there are so many factors that go into what makes the hunt good in one area or another, harvest data alone is not enough.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of deer hunters in Minnesota hunt the same land from year to year. It is especially true for hunters who hunt land they own, but it is even true for those on public lands. Hunters who are not tied to their own chunk of land have millions of acres across the state available to them, but almost all of them still park their vehicle along the same stretch of road each year.

"Minnesota hunters often have a rich tradition with the areas they hunt, whether they own the land or not, and it shows that shooting a deer is not the only thing that this annual tradition is all about," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunter's Association.

Hunters looking to hunt in a new location this year should read this issue cover to cover, and then get out a map and figure out where they want to go. The best time to plan that move was several weeks ago, so right now is crunch time.

Tom McFarlane is a land specialist and agent with Whitetail Properties who travels all around the upper Midwest and Great Plains searching for prime whitetail trophy land for his clients. "Whether scouting public land you can hunt this year, or considering purchasing a private parcel for yourself, knowing the patterns and movements of the deer in the area is the key to success," he said. "And that comes from scouting -- the biggest difference being when you own the land you can control who scouts and who ultimately hunts that land."

Because the herd is healthy across the state and opportunities for harvesting a deer abound in every permit area, a hunter looking to explore new territory would be best served by first determining the kind of experience he wants. Choose the terrain, find a piece of public hunting land, and go scout it out.

"Big bucks do a lot of moving during th

e rut," said Pete Hein, owner of Flatline Productions, which recently released their newest whitetail video. "If you see a big deer taken from an area you were hoping to hunt, don't be discouraged; other bucks in the area figure out that the big boy is gone and move into his territory. If you are there first, you can take advantage of that situation.

"There are big bucks to be had throughout the state on public land, sometimes in the busiest of places," he added. "But they've figured out how to avoid hunters and you just need to figure out his patterns to put yourself in the ideal location."

The permit area map is well known to Minnesota deer hunters, which number just shy of half a million. Ever since a major adjustment in deer management strategy in 2003, the permit area map is divided into three different colors: red, blue and green.

Green had been a very dominant color on the map earlier in the decade denoting a permit area as "intensive harvest." That meant a hunter could take up to five deer, only one of which could be a buck. Hunters were very effective in most of these permit areas, Cornicelli said, and the reduction in antlerless deer over several seasons really brought the population in line with goals.

Compare a map from 2004 to one now and almost every green permit area is currently shaded red, which means "managed" in that hunters can take a buck with their deer license and also an antlerless deer by purchasing a bonus tag. There are a few permit areas on the map that remain as green today as they were several years ago, but that's often because it is an area of urbanization or extensive development. That status limits firearms hunting opportunities, but the area still provides plenty of deer habitat.

That third color of blue has come much more into play on that permit area map. While only a few areas were shaded blue five years ago, well over a third of the state is colored that way today. In these permit areas, otherwise known as "lottery," hunters must apply by a late summer deadline to have their license drawn in a lottery that allows them to harvest an antlerless deer. Those who are not drawn can only shoot an adult male.

Today's regulations are back to what they were several years ago, Cornicelli said, and hunters need to remember that this is more a return to normal than a decline. Those peak seasons from 2003 to 2007 really spoiled a lot of hunters, many of whom forgot that the whole point of being allowed so many opportunities at a deer was to draw down the total deer population.

Prior to 2003, virtually every hunter in the state had to enter a lottery to buy antlerless permits. The change of the map and the color-coded system came with the shift to selling bonus tag licenses over the counter in permit areas that had an excess of deer.

At the end of the day, however, the vast majority of Minnesota hunters only harvested one deer back then and would like to harvest a single deer in 2010 as well. The toughest re-adjustment for these single-deer-a-season hunters is simply remembering that they aren't going to see as many deer as they did during those peak years.

"We're trying to satisfy the mission we've been given and manage the population while recruiting and retaining hunters," said Cornicelli. "We achieve that goal by balancing biology with social desires for the betterment of the herd."

Being successful at that mission requires a lot of balancing, adjusting and management -- permit area by permit area. That means managing specific parcels within each permit area because each permit area is too massive to manage just for deer.

Many young Minnesotans shot their first bucks last season, including Jacob Dexheimer, 13, of Elk River. Photo by Ron C. Hustvedt Jr.

While the entire state is expected to be at or near population goals, there are some sticking points where harvest numbers need to remain high. "I think in general, even with a mild winter, we're going to see deer populations down a little this year," said Mark Lenarz, wildlife research biologist with the DNR's Forest Research Group. "That's because there have been so many opportunities for antlerless deer in the past number of years as we try to bring the population down in the forest," said Mark Lenarz, wildlife research biologist with the DNR's Forest Research Group.

Minnesota's forested region covers a broad swath of land throughout the state, but Lenarz's area primarily encompasses the Arrowhead region. This area frequently has the most severe winters and, as a result, can have lower deer densities on average than the rest of the state. Much of the forestland is far away from cities and highways, meaning hunters willing to drive and scout might discover virtually untapped hunting opportunity.

"By and large, our management efforts have succeeded and we're at our goal in half the permit areas up here, meaning there will be less opportunity to harvest an antlerless deer this year," he added.

A productive spring with multiple fawns per doe, however, could mean a lot of deer roaming the forests and providing hunters with the opportunity of seeing deer, even if it means passing on a shot for another year.

Cornicelli said hunters in the northern forest should be sure and check the permit area map before purchasing their license because some of the boundaries changed this year.

"We realigned a few permit areas but hunters in those areas aren't going to see a major difference," he said.

The changes were made because of a reasonable disparity in deer densities, and the new lines match better with land management practices in each of the impacted areas.

While Minnesota's farmland is considered to be the far western border and southern third, the actual area monitored by DNR deer research scientist Marrett Grund, with the farmland populations and research station, covers a broad area. "Our area is almost all of Zones 2 and 3, which includes a lot of hunters and a lot of whitetail habitat," he said.

Grund added that his area has most permit areas at their density goals, which means there will be more management permits offered. "Over the past years we've been reducing the antlerless harvest to increase the population; there will be more of a management situation to stabilize the numbers."

While winter severity is a big deal in the forested region, it is significantly less important in the farmland region. "There's so much food available to deer during the

summer and early fall that the deer go into winter at the onset in such good physiological condition, even in a severe winter like we had last year it is rare to see a deer starve or become malnourished. Last winter didn't impact deer numbers on a broad scale around the farmland," Grund said. This swinging of the pendulum in the other direction in the farmland, could reflect what would happen in the forest region in 2011, barring a harsh winter.

The Internet has done a lot for hunters. Gone are the days of having to buy an aerial photograph of your hunting grounds. Just go to www.Bing.com or Google Earth for high resolution and sharp images of your favorite hunting grounds. Some photographs are clear enough to reveal stands; careful observers have even spotted orange blobs in photographs taken during the firearms season.

The Internet also has made it easier to figure out wind direction and changing weather patterns. Successful hunters, especially those after trophy whitetails, know how to play the wind and weather right. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Web site at www.weather.gov and The Weather Channel's www.weather.com have helped bag a lot of deer in recent years.

For the first time, hunters this year will be able to register their deer with the DNR online or over the phone. "It's just like we did for turkey hunters and that worked out very well, so it's pretty cool that hunters have this opportunity," Cornicelli said.

Hunters with smart phones can wield a lot of knowledge and register their kill without having to leave the woods. It should not be forgotten, however, there is a very strict limitation on discussing deer movement by two-way communication devices.

The new online registration system is just one of several significant changes for the season and so hunters should thoroughly read the 2010 hunting regulations for all the details. Be sure to review them before purchasing your license since so many adjustments have been made.

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