Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Is It a Deer Hunt or a Horse Race?

This year, it was hard to tell if Minnesota was holding a firearm deer season or a horse race. The media focuses on dead deer, also known as “the harvest,” in reports of the hunting season. Many headlines during the hunt compared of how the current season’s kill matched the previous year.

In the 2011 horse race, hunters were slow coming out of the gate opening weekend, with the Duluth News-tribune reporting the kill was “Down by a Third.” The low death toll was blamed on windy weather, which apparently affected deer movements. Hunters gained some ground after the winds subsided and narrowed the harvest gap after the second weekend of the season, leading the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to report the “Harvest Stages a Rally.”

If the hunt was a horse race, perhaps someone could cash in on kill statistics in the office pool. But in reality, how many deer hunters kill from one year to the next doesn’t tell us much at all. Over a longer time span, harvest statistics can give us a relative idea of the size of the deer herd, which rises and falls like any natural population. But a measure of the kill is hardly a measure of the hunting season.

Most hunters will tell you there is more to deer hunting than shooting a deer. They’ll wax eloquently about watching the sunrise or having a chickadee perch on their shoulder. For some, the fellowship of the deer camp is more important than getting out in the woods. And even though they may kill more deer in some seasons than in others, nearly all hunting parties bring home an adequate supply of venison every year.

Still, killing a deer or having the opportunity to do so is important to most hunters. Some become frustrated if they spend a day or two in the woods without seeing a deer. For others, killing a deer is a point of pride. A few hunters have the unrealistic expectation they should see or kill a trophy buck every year.

I’ve been hunting deer in northern Minnesota long enough to not really pay much attention to population estimates or horse-race reports of the season’s kill. The number of deer in the woods has little bearing on my hunt. I’ll go hunting whether deer numbers are up or down. In fact, about the only thing that will keep me out of the woods during deer season is work or a rainstorm.

It doesn’t really matter if I see any deer. Awhile back, I decided the best approach to hunting is to look for just one deer, because that’s all a hunter really needs to see. Often, I’m looking for a buck—because it’s a more challenging task—but sometimes an adult doe will do. When you are looking for one deer, whether you see it today, tomorrow or next week really isn’t that important.

Last year, I hunted for six days before I saw the deer I was looking for, which happened to be a mature buck. Later, I talked to a friend who thought hunting for six days to shoot a deer was an unbearable amount of time spent in the woods, even if the end result was a mature buck. He prefers quick success on opening weekend. Any deer will do.

In the north, quick success isn’t something you can count on. Even in years when whitetails are abundant, they have plenty of cover in which to hide. During a couple of seasons when the northern deer herd was said to be at peak abundance, I didn’t shoot a deer. That was fine, because I got to keep hunting.

This year, I wound up on the bench for the latter part of the season. In the first week I killed a doe, then a buck, filling my two tags. My partners were unable to hunt the second week, so I had no opportunity to get out in the woods with them. Sure, I would have shot another deer if the chance was presented—we have no qualms about party hunting in our camp—but what I really missed was losing the precious hunting time. As my hunting partner likes to say, in Minnesota, there are only two weeks a year when you can wander around in the woods with a rifle. We try to make the most of the hunting season.

Of course, there’s always next November, when the media deer harvest horse race begins again. Quite likely the media will clamor for a higher deer kill in 2012, since 2011’s harvest seemingly came up short. But the emphasis on harvest statistics begs another question: How many dead deer are enough?

The DNR wisely doesn’t set harvest goals, but the agency does keep track of pertinent statistics. In the past five years, the annual harvest averaged 241,000 deer, though last year’s kill was a mere 195,000. Hunter success rates, based on killing a deer, average 32 percent. The state has nearly a half million licensed hunters. In 2009, the total number of licenses and permits sold was over 800,000. It takes a lot of whitetails to meet that level of demand.

But the real question of how many deer are enough really needs to go deeper than the number of carcasses it takes to satisfy the state’s pumpkin brigade. From the standpoint of sustainable habitat, wildlife biologists say Minnesota could support many more deer than it does now. However, ecologists say the present whitetail abundance profoundly affects other plant and animal species occupying the state’s landscape. Gardeners, insurance adjusters and landscapers generally think Minnesota has more than enough deer.

So “How many deer are enough?” has different answers depending upon who is the question. With the lack of more definitive guidance, the only constant we have is the annual deer kill. When you ask “How many dead deer are enough?” nearly everyone has the same answer. Everyone from hunters to gardeners agrees killing more deer than the previous year is an acceptable goal. Thus the horse race continues.

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