Jim Vagts and his family are seeing more big bucks at their farm in southeastern Minnesota -- the results of antler-point restrictions imposed the past three years.

"We've seen a dramatic improvement in the age structure of the deer herd,'' said Vagts, 70, of Harmony, Minn. "I'm thrilled.''

Though Vagts is a longtime proponent of the experimental deer hunting restrictions, he has more company now. Support has grown for the controversial regulations imposed by the Department of Natural Resources three years ago.

Preliminary results from a survey of southeast hunters last fall show 61 percent want the experimental regulations to continue. In 2009, about 50 percent OK'd them.

"We see pretty strong support for continuing the antler-point restrictions,'' said DNR wildlife research manager Lou Cornicelli. "We've definitely changed some opinions.''

However, the Legislature passed a law last year preventing the DNR from continuing the regulations and must change that law if the restrictions are to continue next fall.

Cornicelli said the DNR isn't ready to make recommendations to legislators just yet. It still is collecting results from the 4,000 random surveys sent to southeast hunters. And the agency is holding two public meetings this week (see box on C16) to solicit comments. Hunters also will be able to go to the DNR's website to complete a questionnaire on the issue.

After the public input, Cornicelli said he anticipates DNR making a recommendation to the Legislature by the end of March. Legislators could accept, reject or change the recommendations.

Cornicelli said the regulations, which only allow bucks with at least four points on one antler to be killed, clearly boosted the number of mature bucks.

"Politics aside, APR did what we thought they would do,'' Cornicelli said. "We changed the type of deer harvested in the southeast. Some people say they don't care. But put a yearling buck next to a trophy buck, and I'll tell you which one people will shoot.''

The regulations are creating a more balanced population, he said. Before, the population was skewed more heavily female.

"It's not trophy hunting,'' he said. "What you have is quality deer management, a more balance of males and females. I completely recognize there are folks who fundamentally disagree with what we are doing.''

And though more of the 40,000 southeast hunters have come to embrace the restrictions, Cornicelli doesn't know if the concept will be tried elsewhere.

"We honestly haven't had that discussion,'' he said. But if that possibility arises, he said the agency can't afford to conduct the kind of extensive evaluations it did in the southeast.

"It's expensive,'' Cornicelli said. The hunter survey alone cost about $30,000.

Meanwhile, the preliminary hunter survey results showed there's less support -- about 50 percent -- for the APR from 3B hunters. And since 2003, there has been a gradual shift of hunters from the late 3B season to the early 3A season.

Vagts is a co-founder of the Bluffland Whitetails Association, a southeast group that pushed for significant deer-management changes. He said it's not all about bagging big bucks.

"Everyone likes seeing a mature whitetail deer. Just knowing they are out there adds another dimension to hunting.''

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com


The two public meetings on deer hunting restrictions both are from 7 to 9 p.m. The first is Monday at the Cannon Falls High School auditorium. The second is Wednesday at Winona Southeast Technical College in Winona.