Brooks Johnson will be among tens of thousands of bowhunters heading into the woods this weekend for the start of Minnesota’s deer hunting season.
He’ll be hunting with friends near Onamia, Minn., hoping for cooler weather when the archery season opens Saturday.
“For me, it’s all about getting close to the animals,” said the 46-year-old Johnson, of Monticello, Minn., president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc.
Last year, a record 108,000 archers hunted whitetails, getting a two-month jump on their firearms-toting counterparts who must wait until November. Besides a 3½-month season that stretches until Dec. 31, those bowhunters have another advantage: They can shoot an antlerless deer almost anywhere, including lottery areas where firearms hunters must apply for a limited number of antlerless permits.
This fall, Minnesota will continue to be in a conservative mode when it comes to shooting antlerless deer. Especially compared to a decade ago, when liberal regulations allowed firearms hunters to shoot a record 147,000 antlerless deer — more than twice the number they killed last fall. That year, 2003, hunters harvested a total of 290,000 whitetails, also a record.
Oh, how the times have changed.
At that time, Department of Natural Resources officials were trying to thin a deer herd that was believed to be too high in many areas. Hunters killed more than a quarter-million deer for five consecutive seasons.
Before 2003, all hunters who wanted to shoot an antlerless deer had to apply through a lottery. In 2002, the DNR offered 366,000 antlerless permits.
Then the agency switched its management scheme, creating “lottery” (must apply for antlerless permit), “managed” (two deer, either sex), and “intensive” (five deer, either sex) permit areas, and later added “hunter choice” (one deer, either sex).
Regardless of the permit area or method, hunters can kill only one buck per year.
In 2003, the agency offered just 32,000 antlerless permits, but the new system allowed even more antlerless opportunities, and that year, hunters bagged those record 147,000 antlerless deer.
“Almost everyone agreed the deer densities were too high,” said Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager. Population goals set through public meetings reduced the harvest. “The way we manage overall deer densities is through antlerless deer harvest,” Cornicelli said.
So the DNR tightened the antlerless deer harvest, and the number of non-antlered deer killed each fall has fallen dramatically.
“We’re generally trying to stabilize or in some cases increase the deer populations,” Cornicelli said. “In the northwest, we’re definitely trying to increase densities there because we’re out of the bovine TB cycle.” (A bovine TB outbreak forced officials to reduce the deer herd there, in hopes of controlling the spread.) A large swath of northern and southwestern Minnesota remains lottery areas, because the agency would like to boost deer numbers there, too, to meet population goals.
This fall, 58 of the 129 permit areas are lottery areas, the same as last year. But permit designations change from year to year based on deer populations, so hunters must check. The DNR increased the total number of antlerless permits available in the lottery by about 10 percent, to 38,850, primarily by boosting permits in the southwest, where lack of habitat has kept the deer population below goal, but conservative management has nudged deer numbers up in some areas.
“We are seeing some population response there, and are able to offer more [antlerless] permits,” said Leslie McInenly, DNR big-game program leader.
She said a long winter in the north likely caused deer mortality, requiring many permit areas there to remain lottery areas.
McInenly said the state’s deer herd is estimated at 1 million, up 2 percent from last year.
Of course, hunters are an optimistic lot, and all of the statistics go out the window beginning Saturday. Johnson, the bowhunter, is anxious to get into the woods and reconnect with his hunting buddies. For him, and a growing legion of hunters, bowhunting is a passion and a challenge.
“You have to get an animal in range, then you have to go through the mechanics of pulling the bow without the animal knowing it, and then you have to make the shot you’ve practiced all summer long.
“It’s a very difficult pursuit. Thank goodness we have 3½ months to get it done.”