Archers who in recent years have wanted changes made to the two special deer hunts held each fall at Camp Ripley will get their wish.
This year, for the first time in about a decade, no bonus permits will be available to Ripley hunters.
Previously, Ripley bonus tags allowed archers to kill a deer on base and in most cases continue to hunt elsewhere later in the season. Bonus permits in some seasons also allowed Ripley hunters who had the opportunity, and desire, to kill a buck and a doe during the special two-day hunts to do so.
(Only one buck is allowed per Minnesota hunter, however, whether by archery, firearm or in combination.)
This year's change wasn't proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The one-deer idea was instead that of Camp Ripley officials.
The intent, the officials say, is to grow the size of the base whitetail herd by eliminating bonus permits and thereby restricting the harvest size. Hunters have complained in recent years, the officials say, that the DNR has allowed too many antlerless deer to be killed on the base — and they're responding to those complaints.
In fact, Ripley's antlerless kill has risen.
In 2003, 157 antlerless whitetails were killed by Ripley archers. In 2004, the antlerless kill jumped to 266, followed by 291 in 2005, and 349, 326, 333, 287, 320, 269 and 255 through 2012.
Until recently, Ripley has been known nationwide as a place where common-man archers could see, and perhaps kill, a buck of a lifetime. In 1981 and in 2001, for example, wall-hangers weighing 272 pounds were killed by Ripley archers.
And between 2003 and 2010, bucks that tipped the scales at 252, 235, 245, 244, 255, 234, 265 and 253 pounds were felled by Ripley bow hunters.
But in recent years, the number of oversized Ripley bucks killed by archers has dropped. Case in point: The heaviest Ripley buck dropped by an arrow in 2014 tipped the scales at 207 — the smallest camp "big buck" since 1981.
Monster bucks recorded previously in the Ripley harvest have raised the camp's profile. Archers from as far away as Florida have applied to the lottery that distributes Ripley's limited number of hunting permits.
That changed last fall, when, for the first year in recent memory, Camp Ripley hunts didn't fill up. The reason, some hunters said, was that chances of killing at deer on the base had declined significantly.
"Stakeholder input that we heard," said a Camp Ripley spokesman, "was that people wanted to see not only a bigger herd on base, but a healthy herd. Consequently, we want to push the deer numbers a little higher."
DNR area wildlife manager Beau Liddell of Little Falls, along with DNR wildlife populations and regulations manager Steve Merchant in St. Paul, are accommodating the bonus-permit change, albeit perhaps reluctantly.
"If I were the one making the decision, I wouldn't play it that way," Liddell said. "But I'm not upset about it. They're [camp officials] responding to the negative press they got last fall [about Ripley's declining deer harvest]. We'll rubber-stamp their regulations."
The DNR hasn't yet released this fall's statewide deer-hunting harvest restrictions. But it's believed the agency will issue more antlerless permits in many parts of the state than it did a year ago, including in the area immediately surrounding Camp Ripley, thereby increasing the overall harvest .
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Special archery hunts have been held at Ripley each fall since 1954. The hunts are administered by the DNR in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Military Affairs.
Legally, Ripley's 53,000 acres are a state game refuge, and as such, deer hunts there — broadly speaking — are intended to manage (meaning, generally, control the size of) the whitetail population.
The goal at Ripley, Liddell and camp officials say, never has been to cultivate big bucks. That the camp has been home to such animals is more a reflection of the genetic makeup of deer there than of any particular management strategy, they say.
The DNR and the base could manage Ripley's herd for mature, or "quality" bucks, Merchant has said, but any decision to do so would have to be made with base officials. A law change might also be necessary.
Meanwhile, other changes are likely at Ripley this fall.
The DNR, Liddell said, no longer will staff the hunts as they have in the past, with as many as 10 wildlife officials on site doing everything from checking hunters into and out of the camp's hunting areas, to weighing and registering harvested deer.
"We've been talking about making these changes for years," Liddell said. "Now is the time. "
Students from Central Lakes College in Brainerd have been assisting the DNR at Ripley for about 10 years, Liddell said. Beginning this fall, their responsibilities will grow.
"They'll run the check stations on our [the DNR's] behalf," Liddell said. "From the DNR, it will just be me and one of my staff helping to set things up."
The change isn't retribution for camp officials' decision to nix hunters' bonus permits this fall, Liddell said.
"It's just a convenient opportunity to bring these changes to the fore," he said.
Meanwhile, the elimination of Ripley bonus permits will help grow the base whitetail herd.
"We're not looking to get back to crazy high harvest levels of the recent past," one official said. "That's not sustainable, and it's not good for our forest. But we want to offer more opportunity to hunters, and to do that, we'll increase the size of the herd a bit."
Editors note: Archers have until Aug. 19 to apply for a permit for one of two Ripley hunts this fall, Oct. 20-21 or Oct. 29-30. For more information, go to mndnr.gov/hunting/deer.