In the interview below, Steve Merchant, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife programs manager, says his agency is distributing significantly fewer antlerless permits this fall in order to grow the state's whitetail herd in coming years. The DNR is limiting antlerless permits by expanding the number of areas in which the antlerless tags will be distributed by lottery. As a result, the whitetail harvest this year by the state's 500,000 deer hunters likely will fall below the 190,000 animals registered by hunters in 2011 -- a harvest many hunters felt was disappointing.
Q Many deer hunters have been surprised this fall by the number of "managed'' antlerless permit areas in the state that have been changed to "lottery," meaning this year they have to apply by Thursday in a drawing to get one of a limited number of antlerless permits.
A Yes. There are many more deer permit areas in the lottery strategy this year than there have been in many years.
Q The change is dramatic. Why?
A Our deer modeling efforts on harvest rates indicated our deer numbers are down, and to rebuild the herd, we need to closely regulate antlerless harvest. It's apparent also to us that hunters were dissatisfied with last year's deer harvest.
Q Last year's harvest was 190,000. With the new restrictions on antlerless permits, what is this fall's harvest likely to be?
A It will be noticeably lower. I personally think it might be as low as 170,000.
Q To be clear: You're restricting the antlerless, or doe, harvest this year to grow the Minnesota deer herd?
Q Last winter, which was mild, had little impact on the herd, meaning reproduction should have been good this spring and summer. Additionally, the DNR doesn't typically act this dramatically, especially not to grow the deer herd. The agency instead has seemed content to reduce its size in recent years. Was the DNR worried a hunters' revolt might occur here over the size of the deer harvest, as it did in Wisconsin, where deer management became highly politicized and the DNR's control of that state's deer herd was undercut?
A We're not blind to what's going on in Wisconsin. But we haven't had a serious conversation about that. It's something that's been talked about around the water cooler, so to speak. In some things, we seem to be a year or two behind Wisconsin. I guess none of us would be completely surprised by it. We wouldn't like it. But anything is possible.
Q Is hunter dissatisfaction with the size of the Minnesota deer harvest concentrated in one part of the state more than others?
A It's been pretty widespread. It's not so much that a harvest of 190,000 deer is bad from a historical viewpoint, though it's the lowest we've had in 10 years. It would have been an awesome harvest 25 years ago. But expectations have changed, and it seems that if we fall short of 200,000 animals, there's disappointment.
Q The DNR held meetings earlier this year around the state that included representatives from varied interests -- not only hunters, but environmentalists, farmers and so forth. These were a follow-up to meetings a few years ago that resulted, the DNR said, in attempts by the agency to reduce the size of the deer herd by allowing hunters to kill as many as five deer in some areas.
A In meetings in 2005 and 2008, it was easy to reach consensus that deer numbers were too high. Even hunters agreed. Perhaps that wasn't the case in the southwest. But in most other areas. This year, when the groups got together, hunters argued that deer numbers were too low. Some people disagreed. So the consensus we reached was to increase the herd modestly in most permit areas. Thus, the lottery changes this year, to set the stage for a larger population in future years.
Q The buck harvest each year is mostly yearlings. Some hunters would like to see restrictions across a broader range of Minnesota that would protect these young bucks and over time change the state's herd to include more mature bucks. Given the pressure the DNR apparently is under by hunters to increase the harvest -- apparently of any deer, young or old -- by growing the size of the herd, is there any chance a management scheme emphasizing "quality" deer will ever take hold across large parts of Minnesota?
A I don't see a groundswell to move in that direction at this time. As you know, we have buck harvest restrictions in the southeast that protect younger bucks. But the Legislature has weighed in on this, and we don't know whether those restrictions will continue indefinitely. We plan fairly soon to survey hunters in the southeast to gauge public acceptance of the restrictions. The results will be influential in our decision-making.