They say great minds think alike. They also say desperate times call for desperate measures. Earlier this month, some hunters in northeastern Minnesota bought their 2016 firearm deer licenses so they could enter the lottery for antlerless deer permits (up here we call them doe permits) for their hunting area. I was one of them.
The other day I attended the funeral of one of the best deer hunters I’ve known: my cousin, Gene Huffman of Duluth. It was pretty good as funerals go. Lots of people were there. Some were friends and relatives I’ve known all of my life. I talked with one old friend who lives on the Iron Range outside of Virginia. I told him I applied for a doe permit. But I don’t intend to use it. I’ll follow a self-imposed bucks-only rule into whitetail numbers improve in my hunting area.
“Some of my friends are doing the same thing,” he told me. “The DNR is giving out 500 permits in their area. My friends don’t think there are 500 does in the whole permit area.”
Rangers, like the aforementioned hunters, may use exaggeration to make a point: They don’t believe the whitetails in their hunting area have recovered enough to justify allowing 500 hunters the opportunity to kill a doe or fawn. In parts of the North, deer are few. By drawing a permit and not using it, hunters theoretically “save a doe” that may produce future fawns and help the deer herd grow. Within the very narrow realm of deer hunting in a remote corner of the state, this is a strong political statement.
My Ranger friend hunts on his own property. He says local whitetails are plentiful, because he and some of his neighbors feed deer in the winter. The deer also have access to alfalfa fields and other crops. The deer receive multiple benefits from living in the proximity of people.
Later in the day, I talked with another friend who hunts public forest land in south-central Lake County. He and his son applied for “protest permits,” too.
“They’re giving out 1,500 doe permits in our area,” he said. “That’s way too many.”
My friend’s hunting shack is several miles inland from Lake Superior. He’s hunted there for years. Since the deep-snow winters of 2012 and 2013 knocked the bottom out of the northern deer herd, his party has had little hunting success. In fact, they’ve seen very few deer. I suspect my friend is not the only Lake County hunter who has gone for a walk through the woods after a November snowfall and not crossed a deer track.
Last summer, I (and many others) were forwarded an email exchange between a northeastern Minnesota real estate agent and a DNR wildlife manager. The real estate agent conducts trail cam surveys of properties he is offering for sale as a service to his customers, who seek to purchase land for hunting. He says deer numbers remain very low on the properties he’s trying to sell. The DNR wildlife manager said whitetail numbers are growing in the units he manages following two easy winters and can support a doe permit lottery.
Knowing and respecting both of these men, I suspect they were discussing apples and oranges. The wildlife manager is responsible for permit areas that include agricultural fields and other open land. The real estate agent’s trail cams are likely set up in forested permit areas. The mix of woods and fields provides much more productive deer habitat than the unbroken boreal forest. Currently, the difference in deer abundance between the two habitat types is striking.
If deer numbers are low in the forest, why would the DNR issue doe permits? At the local citizen advisory meetings held in 2015, some attending “stakeholders” urged the agency to manage for low deer numbers for two reasons. The first was to prevent deer from mingling with moose, thus transmitting the fatal (to moose) brain worm parasite. The second was to limit deer browsing in the traditional wintering yards along Lake Superior’s North Shore and facilitate planting trees to replace the over-mature and dying birch forests. No one knows whether aggressive deer suppression can achieve either of these goals.
Interestingly, other “stakeholders” at the same citizen meetings were concerned the DNR’s antlerless deer management in the recent past was too liberal and may have contributed to the population collapse triggered by snowy winters. They urged the agency to maintain bucks-only hunting until deer numbers improved. It was clear that past strategies that in some years allowed hunters to kill up to five antlerless deer had met with disapproval by many hunters.
If my very unscientific poll of a small handful of northeastern Minnesota deer hunters is any indication, at least a few doe permit applicants feel the DNR wasn’t listening. By applying for protest permits, they are taking local deer management into their own hands. While they likely comprise a minority of doe permit holders, they at least feel as though they are doing right by the deer.
Make no mistake: When deer are abundant, I have no problem killing a doe. On the table, I much prefer the venison of a doe or young buck. But I began hunting during the grim years of the early 70s, when whitetails were so scarce that bucks-only hunts were held in some permit areas for many years. I can hold off from killing does now until there are more deer in the woods.
While the DNR is must always contend with disgruntled hunters, the present dissatisfaction with deer management represents dangerous ground for the agency. If deer hunters, the core constituency and funding source for state wildlife programs, comes to believe the agency is working against them, it will take a long time to undo the damage done.