The Fluctuations in populations are nothing new when it comes to managing white-tailed deer, and current trends in the North Star State clearly show that what goes up will eventually come down. Between recent harsh winters and harvest nosedives, it's been made clear that change is inevitable — even in a state where agriculture rules the habitat picture. Fortunately, we are still a long way from dismal when it comes to predictions for the 2016 hunting season.
Hunters should not have been surprised to find that deer numbers have been on a downward trend in many portions of the state. Reduced antlerless tag allotments and slipping season harvests in nearly every category proved that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' predictions were spot-on and that the agency was taking immediate action.
Even though our deer harvests have dipped to less than half what they were in the early 2000s, most of that decline was by design, not by accident or misfortune. Our deer managers have been tweaking the system throughout the period so that hunters had plenty of opportunities to score while protecting the resource from precipitous declines. Seeking the perfect balance between harvest and population stability is what keeps deer biologists up late at night!
"We have had conservative harvest regulations for the past two years, which should be conducive to deer herd growth in many regions of the state," said Adam Murkowski, Big Game Program Leader for the Minnesota DNR. "In addition, we have had mild winters, which should further promote deer herd growth in many regions of the state.
"The Minnesota DNR is embarking on development of the state's first deer management plan," Murkowski added. "This will be a great opportunity to talk about how we manage deer going forward in Minnesota. Moreover, it will be a great opportunity for folks to learn more about deer and deer management."
Murkowski agreed with many hunters who believe that the overall outdoor experience is often far more important than the outcome.
"I think any day you can go hunting is a great day, irrespective of the nuances of year to year harvest variations," he said. With all that in mind, here's a look at how hunters fared in 2015 and where they can expect to find good hunting in 2016:
2015 HARVEST UPDATE
In any other state an increase in the deer harvest of more than 15,000 would be cause for celebration. In Minnesota, however, pundits continue to compare all seasons to the 2003 record kill of 290,525. The reduction in harvest numbers was not caused by catastrophic losses due to disease, continued winter severity, or lack of hunter participation as much as it was a planned move by the DNR to balance the annual kill with population estimates. Certainly natural and social events contributed to the decline in deer harvest numbers over the last decade, but state biologists are not worried that we are going to run out of deer any time soon.
Whitetail harvests are counted in more than a dozen categories ranging from depredation permits (72 last year) to Season 2A totals reaching 80,498. Another 32,910 whitetails were taken during Season 1 last year, plus an additional 10,052 animals during Season 3A. Season 3B hunters tagged 4,328 deer.
Minnesota's bowhunters accounted for 18,343 whitetails (bucks and does) while muzzleloader hunters downed an additional 6,279 deer.
Metro Firearms and Youth Season hunters tallied 2,368 whitetails, with Free Landowner (1,416), 900 Series (1,999) and early antlerless harvests adding 442 deer to the mix, followed by Disabled/Mentored hunters, who tagged 26 deer statewide.
Success rates ranged from 34.6 percent during Season 3A to 12 percent during the Muzzleloader Season. Seasons 2A and 3B were identical at 32.6 percent with Season 1A hunters coming in third place with 20.5-percent success — not bad considering that 1-in-5 Season 1A hunters enjoyed a productive hunt. Comparatively speaking, that's more than double the success rate of many other states where whitetails are the top prize.
Firearms hunters took a total of 5,169 deer in 2015 including 3,274 adult does and 1,895 fawns (male and female). Permit Area 241 in Zone 2A produced 2,056 does and fawns while Permit Area 214 was a distant second with 917 antlerless deer. Hunters in Permit Area 215 tagged 769 deer, while the remaining areas (Permit Areas 227, 343 (3A), 343 (3B), and 114 contributed 456, 409, 183, and five deer respectively.
Hunters in the Intensive Permit Area produced a total of 2,425 deer with totals over the five-zone area ranging from 289 to 746 deer, with Areas 349 and 346 leading the pack.
There are two ways to look at harvest results in each Harvest Area — total harvest and total kill per square mile. It doesn't necessarily follow that the Harvest Areas with the highest total kills also have the highest per-square-mile totals simply because there may be more square miles in one area than another, which can fudge the numbers, at least from a statistical point of view.
Some hunters will focus on the total area harvest and bet their season on the higher total kill while others will focus on Harvest Areas that have higher deer densities suggested by a higher per-square-mile total. It's a crap shoot either way and hunters should keep in mind that even in the best, most productive areas, the highest success rate last year was just over 34 percent, meaning two-thirds of hunters did not tag a whitetail. Statistics, numbers and estimates will only go so far!
THE TOP 5
The Top 5 total deer harvests by Permit Area were: Permit Area 241 (8,520) followed by PA 213 (4,701), PA 184 with 4,222 deer tagged, PA 214 (4,113) and PA 349 (4,201). Most of the Permit Areas from PA 101 to PA 601 produced deer harvests ranging from between 1,300 to 4,000 deer, while Permit Areas 900 and higher varied from a low of just 3 deer to a high of 135 whitetails.
For firearms hunters, the per-square-mile harvest averaged 1.7 statewide, which of course means that some areas posted higher as well as lower harvest numbers. On the high end, Permit Area 346 led the field with a kill of 8.0 deer per square mile. Rounding out the Top 5 in this category were PA349 (6.8), PA214 (6.6), PA287 (4.8), and PA225 (4.3). A few contenders topped 3.0 but most fell into the 2 deer or fewer bracket.
While there had been a spike in Minnesota's deer harvests from 2003 to 2007, the 2016 kill was generally in keeping with the long-term average dating back to 1995. In other words, aside from spikes, variations, ups-and-downs and "off" years our statewide deer harvests are, as DNR biologist Adam Murkowski suggests, nothing to worry about.
North Star State hunters who want a good chance at tagging a deer for the freezer have the same 30 percent odds for success they've always had. Barring inclement weather on the most popular hunting days, normal hunter participation, and a little bit of cooperation from the deer herd, Minnesota's combined 2016 hunting seasons, including all permit options, should be at least as productive as last season, if not better.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Hunters with access to private lands, farms and woodlands should have an easier time filling their tags than the average public-land hunter, but if success is based on participation and intensity, every licensed hunter in the state has an equal opportunity to score. Minnesota's list of public hunting areas varies from waterfowl production areas to state and national forestlands along with millions of acres of wildlife management areas that offer a wide variety of habitat types and hunting conditions.
For the most part, whitetails are brush-loving creatures that feel safest when escape cover is just one jump away. There are plenty of deer to be found in the state's extensive grasslands, river bottoms and brushy cover types. As with rabbits, it doesn't take much to hide a deer. Patient and persistent hunters who do their homework and spend time scouting prospective hunting areas will have the best "luck" (as if luck had anything to do with it). Hunters who put in their time regardless of weather conditions or deer population numbers invariably have the highest success levels. In Minnesota, at least, 30 percent of the hunters kill 100 percent of the deer, a telling statistic.Taking into consideration "all of the above," here's where to look for your whitetail on public lands in 2016.
NATIONAL FOREST LANDS
Minnesota hunters looking for the "big woods" hunting experience may want to consider spending some time in the Chippewa (central portion) and Superior (northeastern portion) national forests, which cover more than 4.5 million acres. Don't expect to find a deer behind every tree in either forest, but both units contain pockets of deer-friendly habitat. Log onto usda.fs.gov backslash Chippewa or Superior and consult with the forest manager for details on recent clearcutting operations and other habitat work that has been conducted in recent years.
WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AREAS
Minnesota has more than 1,400 wildlife management areas covering some 1.3 million acres across the state. These areas vary in size and habitat quality but most of them contain pockets of prime whitetail cover, which varies with the size and location of the WMA. Not every WMA is managed at maximum carrying capacity for deer so don't expect to jump that big buck right out of the parking area. It will take boots on the ground to determine where the best whitetail habitat can be found.
For maps and more information, log onto dnr.state.mn.us. Follow the links to the wildlife management areas in your region.
Minnesota's 56 state forests cover more than 3 million acres, giving hunters plenty of additional room to roam during deer season. The key, as usual, is to find the areas that have been logged or clearcut in the past five years or so, as these will be in early-successional growth where deer will find plenty of forage, bedding areas and escape cover.
Keep in mind that modern forestry managers often target areas for cutting that are well away from "the public," which does not like to see clearcuts and other signs of tree cutting. Consult with the forest manager for maps of recent logging activity, roads and trails and other opportunities to access these often-remote areas.
Many of these cutover areas will be relatively small and secluded, but they likely will provide the best whitetail habitat on the forest proper. Log onto dnr.state.mn.us and follow the links to the state forest page.
Many of Minnesota's northernmost counties contain "county forests," which are simply tax-forfeited lands that are open to the public for hunting and other recreation. Most of these forests are not being managed for wildlife but they do contain pockets of cover where some good deer hunting might be found.
Begin your search with St. Louis, Becker, Itasca, Crow Wing and Koochiching counties.
Other counties in the region also offer similar hunting opportunities. A visit to the county tax office should produce a current listing of county forests including maps, surveys and other details that can help in assessing the area and planning a productive hunt in 2016.
WATERFOWL PRODUCTION AREAS
While most of Minnesota's waterfowl production areas have been set aside and managed for wetland habitat, there is plenty of brush and sapling cover within and adjoining these areas where deer can find a safe haven during the hunting season.
Many of these wetland areas are open to hunting in various capacities, but often go ignored by deer hunters because of the "waterfowl" reference. Remember, it doesn't take much to hide a deer and there's no doubt that some bucks have discovered the advantage of getting their feet wet during the hunting season.
For more information on Minnesota's Waterfowl Production Areas, log onto fws.gov/refuges and follow the links where maps, descriptions and regulations governing these areas can be found.