By Shawn Perich
It’s ironic that the Minnesota DNR is holding listening sessions to discuss white-tailed deer population goals during the coldest, snowiest winter in a generation. Hunters statewide are complaining they are not seeing enough deer when they go hunting, as evidenced by a decline in the annual harvest from a record kill of 291,000 in 2003 to a 2013 kill of 173,000. Since it is now April and snow lies deep across much of the state, hopefully the complainers realize they’ll likely see even fewer deer next November.
Mother Nature just pushed the whitetail reset button.
Last week, the Duluth News-Tribune published a list of the snowiest winters on record. At the time, the winter of 2013-14 was in 14th place with 104.7 inches of snow. It lags behind last winter, 2012-13, with 129.4 inches, the third snowiest on the list.
There have been three other times when successive winters set snowfall records. The winter of 1949-50 ranked second with 131.8 inches, followed by tenth-ranked 1950-51 with 109.1 inches. The next snowy period began with the winter of 1968-69, ranked fifth with 121 inches. The winter of 1970-71 came in seventh place with 116.9 inches, followed by 13th-ranked 1971-72 with 107.1 inches. The most recent snowy period was 1995-96, the snowiest year on record with 135.4 inches. In 1996-97, Duluth had its fourth snowiest winter at 128.2 inches.
These deep-snow years seem to occur at intervals that are a little longer than the average hunter’s memory. Admittedly, the 1951 deer season was before my time, but I vividly recall November of 1973. That was to be my first year in the deer woods, but the DNR closed the season due to a lack of whitetails. We had a hunting season in 1997, but the harvest numbers tell the story. In 1995, Minnesotans killed 215,000 deer. Following two severe winters, the 1997 harvest dropped to 143,000.
Snowy winters, especially the ones when snow piles up before Christmas and then lingers like a melting glacier well into April, are known to be hard on whitetail populations. Unable to move about reach their natural foods due to deep snow, deer may die from a lack of nourishment. In the past, deer succumbed to starvation, though with Minnesota’s currently strong populations of wolves and coyotes, today it may be more likely they are killed by these predators while in a weakened state. Winter-stressed pregnant does are less likely to give birth, so fawn production tails off as well.
The sudden drop in deer numbers after successive hard winters affects how humans perceive deer and deer management. After closing the hunting season in 1973, Minnesota embarked on a new deer management regimen. Previously, Minnesota held any-sex hunts. Going forward, a general hunting license only allowed a hunter to kill one antlered buck. Antlerless harvests were controlled with a permit system. This allowed the state to protect does when deer numbers were low and allow more doe harvest when deer numbers were higher. Still, the northern herd recovered slowly, because a lack of logging had allowed forests to mature, thus providing less-than-ideal deer habitat.
The situation was somewhat different in 1997. This time, antlerless permits were greatly reduced and the population quickly recovered. Just six years later, in 2003, Minnesota set an all-time harvest record of 291,000. Why did the herd recover more quickly the second time around? The DNR’s management strategy provides part, but not all of the answer. Northern Minnesota was in the midst of logging boom that created ample young forest habitat. In the agricultural region, the Conservation Reserve Program provided a patchwork of grassland habitat on the predominately cultivated landscape. Also, it was during the hard winters of the 1990s when recreational deer feeding really came into vogue, providing whitetails with a nutritious new source of food. Around this time, more hunters began to develop wildlife food plots on private land, too.
It’s hard to say what will happen this time around. About all we really know is that deer hunting will be tough next November. You can blame the DNR, the wolves or whatever for your lack of hunting success, but the real culprit is Old Man Winter. How quickly the herd may recover is anyone’s guess, but it is worth noting the situation has changed since the last crash in the mid-90s. Timber harvesting has fallen by at least a third, which means northern deer habitat is aging. In farm country, the Conservation Reserve Program is just a shadow of what it used to be. While artificial feeding—whether a backyard corn pile or back forty food plot—might make a localized difference, it won’t offset landscape-scale habitat loss or diminishment.
Hunters who look to the years of superabundant whitetails in the early to mid-2000s as the glory days of Minnesota deer hunting may be somewhat disappointed with what the future holds. While deer numbers will certainly rise if we have a couple of mild winters, we have no guarantees that they will again reach record highs given current habitat conditions. But that doesn’t mean Minnesota won’t have enough deer to provide good hunting.
Hopefully, during the ongoing DNR listening sessions, at least a few hunters, rather than complaining about low deer numbers, will ask a very important question: How many deer on the landscape are enough? Bear in mind that high deer populations are associated with disease outbreaks, diminished bio-diversity, depredation, traffic accidents and (arguably) higher incidence of tick-borne illnesses. These are real issues affecting everyone in Minnesota, not just hunters.
Somehow, we expect the DNR to strike a balance to provide enough deer for the hunters who expect to see a buck behind every bush and yet keep the population in check to minimize the many issues associated with whitetail overabundance. The problem is wildlife managers can’t just turn a switch or crank a dial and create a perfect deer population. Fortunately, every now and then we have a year like this, when Mother Nature pushes the reset button, as only she can do. And no amount of complaining will change that.