Back in 2006, I wrote an article for the Outdoor News about the history of deer hunting in Minnesota. It was a ton of fun to research and write and I've long wanted to dig deeper into the subject but just haven't had time. As we sit here, a week into the 2010 deer season, I thought it might be good to dust off the article and republish it for all to read.
Author Ron Hustvedt with the largest buck of his hunting career
By Ron C Hustvedt Jr.
Deer hunting in Minnesota was almost purely for survival throughout most of the years of the hunt. When Minnesota gained statehood in 1858 hunting was less sport and more a way to get food for the family which is why no major regulations were established until the dawn of the 20th century. Check the timeline for details on highlights from that timeframe.
Ed Boggess joined the DNR in 1982 and has hunted Minnesota deer in the state for nearly 25 years. He is the Policy Chief for the DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division though he’s also served as the assistant director of wildlife and a wildlife program manger.
Boggess said that the last 150 years of Minnesota deer hunting has seen a lot of changes with the majority of those changes taking place in the last 30 years.
60s and 70s
“Deer weren’t doing very well back then and the management system wasn’t designed to allow for control in the harvest in a precise way because it was either open or closed,” Boggess said. When the season was open the deer population would be overshot and then have to be closed. Deer in the farmland areas were especially susceptible to these population fluctuations because of limited cover from hunters. Deer in the forested areas were more protected and the population remained relatively stable.
The author's father with his first doe taken in the 1960s. Love the car!
That all changed, however, in 1971 when the DNR closed the season because the deer herd was too low. The DNR decided that it needed to create a system to control the harvest of antlerless deer and get a better grip on maintaining a steady population.
Meetings were held all over the state, Boggess said, and DNR officials explained why the new system would control the harvest and keep seasons open not to mention increase the population over time.
Check the timeline to see the changes that took place throughout the 1970s and you’ll see the beginnings of systems that were still in place just a few years ago as well as systems still in place today.
80s and 90s
The focus during this decade was to try and not over-harvest the population, Boggess said. Severe winters in the northern part of the state in the early 1980s kept the population from growing too much even with the new quota system.
The author's father again, with his largest buck taken in 1982. That year hunters could submit a tooth from their kill for a DNR research survey. (The author's favorite hunting partner, by the way, is his father Ron Hustvedt, Sr.)
Boggess said the DNR carefully monitored Minnesota’s deer herd population throughout the decade and regularly tweaked the quota system though no major changes were made. Harvest data was being collected and hunters had to learn how to adjust their hunting to fit the system. The DNR also did several studies about the average age of deer when harvested and collected data about hunter’s opinions of the hunt in 1989. Those results are available on the DNR webpage at www.dnr.state.mn.us
This survey led to the next shift in deer management in the state. Deer populations grew steadily throughout the 1980s and were becoming difficult to control in some areas, particularly the transition areas which make up Zone 2 and 3.
“In the early 1990s we tried to shift the management philosophy from the approach of ‘don’t issue too many antlerless permits’ to one of ‘don’t issue too few antlerless permits’—though it was always a conservative approach,” he said.
The goal was to control the population through hunting while avoiding problems identified by other eastern states where hunter numbers were not enough to keep the population under control.
Boggess said the DNR became more aggressive with the antlerless system and issued a record number in the early 1990s thinking they’d do it once and never do it again. “The population continued to grow to numbers difficult to manage and that was the first time we really worried about having too many deer,” he said.
Back to back winters with high severity indexes happened in 1995-96 and 1996-97. Those winters greatly reduced the number of antlerless permits issued in northeastern and north-central Minnesota but the population recovered faster than projected.
The author with his first buck, taken in the early 1990s.
“The mild winters in the late 1990s along with a rapidly growing herd created a situation where we issued so many permits that it was automatic in most areas,” he said.
The next major shift in management philosophy came five years ago as a response to the burgeoning population. “We figured why not save people the time and energy of having to enter into an automatic drawing every year and allow people some open options—which is when we went to the current system of choosing one of three classifications,” he said.
The current lottery, managed and intensive harvest system was created to make it easier for hunters to shoot antlerless deer and increase the harvest.
“Now we are in an evaluation phase looking at different types of regulations to see which ones can help look at the ways to shoot to control the population,” he said.
Hunters used to be happy to shoot a deer every second or third year but now many are looking to have the opportunity to hunt for larger bucks.
Since the season was closed in 1971 and the DNR began more hands-on monitoring of the population there has been a lot of change for deer hunting in Minnesota. Boggess said that change goes across all areas including the health of the herd, the deer population, how the DNR controls the population, the human population, urban development and also hunter attitudes.
“I think as there have been more opportunities to shoot and hunters have had more experience, they are interested in shooting more mature deer or at least having more opportunities to shoot a big buck with the understanding that they won’t be able to do that every year,” Boggess said.
He believes that hunters are better understanding their critical role in the entire process of managing the herd. At the same time, Boggess said the DNR is refining its position on how deer populations are managed in the state. “The DNR is here to make sure the deer herd is responsibly managed which at one point meant not over-harvesting while now it is to make sure that we are harvesting enough through hunting to maintain populations that are within the goals for habitat and social tolerance,” he said.
Boggess is optimistic for the future of deer hunting in the state as long as hunters continue to be involved and part of the process.
Important dates in Minnesota Deer Hunting History
By Ron C Hustvedt Jr.
The following is a summary of historical deer hunting regulation changes since Minnesota first became a state in 1858. This data, provided by the DNR Fish & Wildlife Office, has never been previously published.
1858 First big game laws established. Deer season is five months from September 1 until January 31. No mention of limits or licensing.
1887 Deer season restricted to the month of November.
1895 First season limit established of five deer per person. No license requirements.
1899 First big game license introduced at a cost of twenty-five cents for residents and $25 for nonresidents.
1901 Season limit reduced to three deer per license.
1903 Resident big game license fee increased to $1. Limit of three deer, one male moose and one male caribou per license. (The caribou season was closed a year later).
1905 Season limit of two deer. No license required for residents hunting in their home county.
1911 Coupons, provided with a deer license, must be attached immediately after the kill.
1915 Big game season limit reduced to one deer or one moose per license.
1919 All big game hunters required to purchase a license regardless of where they hunt. Nonresident license fee raised to $50. Hunting restricted to daylight hours and to rifles or shotguns which were to be cased when carried in a motor vehicle.
1921 Resident big game license fee increased to $2.
1923 Deer season opened on even-numbered years only (except in 1933 and 1937 when a Governor’s order opened the season).
1971 Deer season closed due to low deer herd population.
1972 “Hunter’s Option” introduced requiring hunters to choose a specific area with specific dates to hunt. Registration of harvested deer at DNR designated stations required.
1973 Introduction of “bucks only” regulation in certain zones.
1975 Introduction of “either sex” permits and quotas.
1976 Resident deer license fee increased to $10. Muzzleloading rifles recognized as legal for big game. Statewide “bucks only” firearms deer season with antlerless quotas in some areas.
1977 Muzzleloader season created on designated state lands as a late-season hunt (Dec. 3 to 18) and either-sex deer option.
1978 Trespass law enacted prohibiting unauthorized entry onto agricultural or posted land.
1980 Handguns allowed for big game. Purchase of deer license required before antlerless permit application submitted.
1982 License fee increased to $14 for all resident big game licenses (firearms and archery). Antlerless permit preference system begun whereby unsuccessful applicants receive preference in following years/drawings.
1983 All resident big game license fees increased to $15.