Greater opportunities await half a million Minnesota whitetail hunters this year as the traditional firearms deer season opens Saturday on a relatively early date, with a healthy herd, liberalized permitting and fair weather in the forecast.

“It’s a pretty strong deer population across the state,’’ said Erik Thorson, acting big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in Park Rapids.

Based on estimates of improved deer abundance and higher hunting success rates than a year ago, Minnesota should easily exceed 2017’s harvest of about 200,000 deer. Projections hint of an increase of at least 10 percent, possibly more.

Thorson said deer hunting restrictions were loosened this year in 37 percent of the state’s deer permit areas to reflect gains in the whitetail herd. A string of mild winters, coupled with several years of conservative deer management, combined to put more whitetails on the landscape. That includes areas in northern Minnesota where deer sightings had dried up.

Deer license sales heading into the opener are lagging, but Thorson expects a turnaround by Saturday. That’s because fewer hunters this year are required to register early to draw for a chance to harvest an antlerless deer.

In pre-season special hunts this year, like the annual youth hunt, the deer harvest was 22 percent larger than a year ago. Thorson said it’s “indicative of what hunters are seeing and what deer are out there.’’

He said weather shouldn’t spoil the trend when shooting opens Saturday a half hour before sunrise. Temperatures in the 40s, with reasonable winds and chances for light snow or rain, should stimulate deer movements and allow hunters to stay longer in their stands. By rule, Minnesota’s opener falls on the Saturday closest to Nov. 6 and this year’s start takes place about as early as possible.

Archery harvest

Minnesota bow hunters have taken 11 percent more deer this fall than they did a year ago despite a 3 percent reduction in license sales.

The result — 12,750 whitetails arrowed by 87,700 hunters — is “quite good,’’ Thorson said. He said the success should encourage the state’s much larger contingent of hunters who carry firearms.

Bow hunters first took to the woods Sept. 15. Thorson said the harvest started to slow down in the past five days, but by year’s end he expects a higher overall archery success rate than last year’s mark of 19 percent.

Between the archery hunt, youth hunts and other special hunts that precede the traditional opener, this year’s harvest stands at about 15,000 deer.

CWD

Minnesota’s aggressive fight against chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer requires hunters in three select zones to visit a DNR sampling station with every adult whitetail they harvest on opening weekend.

Twenty-seven of the 36 stations will be spread across a massive area in southeastern Minnesota that stretches from Red Wing to as far south as Mabel on the Iowa border. Another zone lies north of Brainerd and south of Pine River. The third mandatory testing zone encompasses Kimball, Litchfield, Howard Lake and Hutchinson. Deer feeding bans extend outward from each zone.

Wildlife researchers established the central and north-central zones to ensure that CWD found in captive deer in those areas didn’t escape penned facilities to infect wild deer. The southeastern zone also surrounds a diseased deer farm, but more widely surrounds an ongoing CWD outbreak in wild deer centered in Fillmore County, a special CWD management area with season-long testing requirements.

Of 153 whitetails tested in the Fillmore County zone this fall, two have tested positive.

On Saturday and Sunday in all mandatory testing zones, sampling stations will be open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The DNR will ask hunters to identify on a map the township, range and section where they harvested their deer.

For hunters outside mandatory testing zones who want CWD testing, officials say to submit lymph node tissue samples to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, where fees start at $45. Colorado State University’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab will perform the same test for less money. The DNR website offers a video lesson on how to remove the nodes.

Safety concerns

Minnesota DNR officials attribute the state’s current system of firearms safety training as instrumental in lowering the number of accidental injuries and deaths during fall hunting seasons.

During the 1960s, as many as 29 hunters were killed in a single year. As recently as 2015, there were zero hunting-related fatalities in the state. The difference is a network of 4,000 certified instructors providing lessons to 177,000 students. The training is mandatory for all prospective hunters.

But already this fall, one Minnesota hunter was killed and three others were injured in four hunting-related firearms incidents. The agency has urged hunters to stay cautious in the field. The number of incidents in September was the highest since 2013, when firearms mistakes affected 17 individuals and their families.

Lt. Col. Greg Salo of DNR Enforcement said some 185 conservation officers will be in the field this weekend to enforce game laws and respond to emergencies. The force is supplemented for the deer opener with regional training officers, water resource officers and other specialty personnel.

Governor’s Opener

More than 300 Minnesotans will attend the Minnesota Governor’s Deer Hunting Opener in Hinckley this year, sans Gov. Mark Dayton.

Like last month’s Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener in Luverne, the guest of honor is expected to be sidelined because he is recovering from back surgery. Event organizers say he’ll miss the “Welcome to Camp’’ celebration at Grand Casino on Thursday evening.

The Democratic governor isn’t a deer hunter, but throughout his tenure he’s been a staunch supporter of hunting and fishing as culturally, environmentally and economically important to the state. He attended last year’s official deer opener festivities in Grand Rapids. Thursday’s kickoff party is the main event, featuring live music, displays by 35 vendors, drawings, demonstrations, speeches and two hours of fancy hors d’oeuvres.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin opens its traditional nine-day firearms deer season two weeks later than Minnesota, but wildlife officials in the Badger State are similarly encouraged by good prospects for bagging deer.

They report little impact from winter on the state’s massive deer population. Even in northern Wisconsin, biologists are seeing an upward trend in reproduction. Those gains bring increases this year in antlerless quotas and projections that hunters will exceed last year’s statewide harvest of 321,000 deer.

The official DNR outlook says the overwhelming majority of counties up and down the Minnesota-Wisconsin border contain desired levels of deer or too many deer.

Unlike Minnesota, Wisconsin’s archery season is wide open to crossbow usage and hunters continue to take advantage. Last year, crossbow hunters took more than 47,000 deer, slightly more than were harvested by traditional archers. The same trend is in place this year.

On the downside in Wisconsin, the state’s 16-year-old outbreak of CWD in the wild is now affecting hunters in more than half the state. In response to the disease, bans against deer baiting and feeding now include Buffalo, Pepin, Dunn, Trempealeau and La Crosse counties. In March, the DNR confirmed a new case of CWD in western Eau Claire County, 50 miles from Mississippi River.

Hunters in the large West Central District, in close proximity to Minnesota, will be assisting the DNR this fall in CWD sampling.