The Old Man used to have a saying: “Minnesota has 300,000 hunters and harvests 100,000 deer a year. That’s good hunting. We don’t need to have a million deer like Texas.”
For many years, his statement about total hunters and average harvest held true. This was back 30-40 years ago, when nearly all of the state’s deer were found in forested areas, primarily in the north. Times have changed. Now whitetails are found throughout the state, including in urban areas. And the people who pursue them every autumn are now a half-million strong. More deer and more hunters mean harvests have increased, too.
It wasn’t surprising when the DNR recently proposed an annual long-term harvest objective of 190,000 deer under its developing comprehensive management plan. It also wasn’t surprising when Minnesota Outdoor News reported that two state deer hunting organizations were disappointed with the proposal, saying they preferred an annual harvest target of 220,000 to 225,000 deer. After all, some hunters always want more deer.
Since the annual harvest number was simply proposed by the DNR, it is likely it will change before the ink dries on the comprehensive management plan. But this hunter thinks 190,000 is a good place to start. Here’s why.
Minnesota is ecologically diverse, including intensively farmed regions, the bluff country of the Southeast, the Metro, the prairie potholes and parklands of the west and northwest, the central transition zone from farm to forests and the northern woods. Whitetails are common across the state’s landscape, but their abundance and availability to hunters often differs in various ecosystems.
During the 2017 hunt, for instance, the total harvest was influenced by standing corn that provided deer refuge from farm country hunters and low deer numbers in portions of the North still recovering from previous harsh winters. The total kill, as reported by Outdoor News, is expected to be around 200,000 deer; not far off from the proposed target of 190,000. Did all hunters have a good 2017 season? Of course not, due to the reasons listed above. But overall, hunting in Minnesota was pretty good.
This begs the question: How much better would the season have been for the average hunter had the harvest been 10 percent higher, reaching that 220-225,000 kill proposed by hunting organizations? Would that translate to a 10 percent bump in hunter success statewide? Or would we have come closer to that goal had more corn been harvested? A source quoted in Outdoor News suggested that with 2017’s projected (seasons are still open) harvest of 200,000 whitetails, many hunters still believe the state has too few deer. Would that belief change if the harvest increased by 10 percent?
Perhaps some hunters and the organizations that represent them have unrealistic expectations when they head into the deer woods. Perhaps they have lingering memories of the whitetail explosion of the early 2000s. Minnesota hunters killed over one quarter million deer annually from 2003 through 2007, peaking at 290,000 whitetails. At the time, there was broad agreement that deer were overabundant, which led DNR to try different seasons and bag limits to increase the harvest and reduce deer numbers. Whether the DNR was overzealous in their efforts or had the bad luck of getting some deadly assistance from Old Man Winter is a matter of debate, but the deer herd declined precipitously from that historic high. Recent seasons have seen restrictions placed on antlerless deer harvest in an effort to rebuild the herd.
At the same time, the salad days of whitetail abundance may be behind us, for a variety of reasons, including habitat loss, Chronic Wasting Disease, public safety, forest health, and human tolerance. While it is rarely discussed, Minnesota has suffered severe habitat loss in recent years due to the withdrawal of farmland from the CRP program and the reduced demand for forest products. Less habitat means fewer deer. Currently in southeastern Minnesota, an outbreak of CWD in wild deer has the DNR looking for ways to lower deer densities to slow the spread of disease. While there is no secret cabal of insurance industry lobbyists seeking to reduce deer numbers, it doesn’t take a wildlife biologist to correlate deer abundance and vehicle accidents, which may result in human injuries and loss of life. Complaints from foresters about deer damage reached a crescendo during the years of high abundance in the early 2000s; a situation they don’t care to repeat. And it must be noted that average Minnesotans—virtually everyone who has a car and/or a backyard—has a limited tolerance for deer.
Perspectives on deer abundance vary, but there seems to be a fine line between what folks consider “too many” whitetails or “too few.” Rarely does anyone, hunter or nonhunter, view deer numbers as “just right.”
DNR wildlife managers have to thread a needle of public perception to receive both hunter and mainstream public support for their deer management decisions. Because wildlife belongs to everyone, it is unfair for hunters to assume they wholly call the shots when it comes to issues such as deer abundance. Setting a total harvest goal that some hunters consider low doesn’t mean there won’t be years when the kill is above goal. Instead it allows wildlife managers some wiggle room before whitetail abundance crosses that fine line of public perception into “too many” deer.
Dare I say that hunting organizations hoping to push that harvest objective to 220,000 are living in the past. In the last decade, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of acres of deer habitat due to CRP grasslands converted to row crops and significantly less logging activity in the forest. We also now must contend with reduced deer densities in the CWD zone. To reach those high harvests of a decade ago, we’d have to grow a lot more deer on a lot less land. Sorry, but that doesn’t strike me as a responsible approach to deer management.
The reality is that Minnesota deer numbers rise and fall in response to natural conditions, primarily winter weather. No two years are the same. There will always be someplace in the state where hunters think there are too few deer and someplace else where the general public thinks there are too many. Never will all agree that Minnesota’s deer population is “just right.”
By Shawn Perich