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Assuming the Legislature leaves well enough alone when it convenes early next year, the deer management revolution ongoing in southeast Minnesota's blufflands will continue.
If so, the deer there, and deer hunters, will be better for it.
Now in its third year, Antler Point Restrictions (APR), an experimental deer management system in the southeast, is beginning to show the results its proponents had hoped for.
Meaning a greater number of mature (at least 2 1/2 years of age) bucks are appearing in the region's very healthy whitetail herd, the result of a prohibition against killing bucks with fewer than 4 points on at least one antler (young hunters are exempted from the regulation).
But the benefits of APR -- which also prohibits cross-tagging, or party hunting, for bucks -- extend well beyond the increased number of bragging-size bucks that hunters already are seeing, and killing, in the southeast.
• A more balanced herd, meaning one with relatively fewer does than historically has been the case, and significantly more older bucks.
• A somewhat smaller, and therefore less intrusive, herd, in a region that long has had its share of crop depredation complaints filed by landowners.
• A safer hunting environment, in which fewer (inherently dangerous) deer drives are conducted, and (probably) fewer "snap shots'' are fired at deer by hunters who don't otherwise take the time to clearly identify their targets.
"After the first year of regulations, I heard a little complaining,'' said Andrew Nielsen of Byron, Minn., who earlier this fall arrowed a 15-point non-typical trophy in the southeast.
"But I don't hear many objections anymore. There are so many does in the region, if someone wants meat to fill the freezer, they can kill one of those. Meanwhile, the number of older bucks keeps growing. APR is doing nothing but good things.''
Seth Hargrove of Houston, Minn., agrees.
"At first I didn't support the antler point restrictions,'' he said. "But after a few years now I'm starting to see the bigger bucks.''
The private land in the southeast that Hargrove hunts has long been managed for larger bucks, with yearlings and other, smaller bucks protected.
But on public lands where that management scheme traditionally hasn't been in effect, hunters legitimately have worried that if they pass up a fork or spike, a hunter in the next 40 would shoot it.
"But with the 4-point rule, that's no longer the case,'' Hargrove said. "And this year there have been some giants taken.''
APR isn't universally supported. Its detractors -- fewer now than in 2010 when the plan was implemented -- argue they should be able to shoot whatever they want.
It's a fair point.
Except that everyone, given a choice, would prefer to shoot a bigger buck than a smaller one. And as time goes on, "everyone'' will have ever-greater chances to kill big bucks come deer season, because mature bucks will make up ever greater percentages of the herd.
The "old'' way of Minnesota deer hunting -- still prevalent throughout most of the state -- in which 60 percent of bucks harvested in a season are yearlings, hardly seems better.
Or more natural.
Example: In an unhunted herd, meaning one (theoretically) unaffected by man, many, if not most, yearling bucks would survive until their second, third or fourth birthdays.
During that time, nature would self-select the survivors through fighting, mishap or miscalculation, to determine which of the herd's bucks would pass on its superior traits to strengthen the herd.
• • •
Whining about the Department of Natural Resources has long been a good way to pass the time in Minnesota. But in fact, the agency did its homework before implementing APR in the southeast.
Not only did wildlife officials survey southeast deer hunters to determine their attitudes about various whitetail management philosophies, it tested APR -- albeit on a small scale -- before implementing it.
All along, wildlife officials knew APR would result in fewer bucks harvested in the program's initial years. And that proved true: The southeast buck harvest in 2010 was down 30 percent.
Additionally, 3 percent of surveyed southeast hunters complained that if APR were implemented, they'd stop hunting, or hunt elsewhere.
In fact, 2 percent didn't show up to hunt in 2010 compared to 2009.
But in 2011, the drop-off was recaptured.
Notwithstanding these successes, the Legislature has insisted the DNR appeal to it in its coming session if the agency wants to extend APR past this season.
To that end, deer experts and wildlife technicians scattered across the southeast last week when the firearms deer season opened.
Their intent was to count and age bucks that were registered, measure their antlers and gather other data that will contribute to a detailed understanding of the effect APR is having on the region's herd.
Jeff Iverson of Mantorville, Minn., who took a giant of a buck this fall in the southeast, is upbeat.
"You can tell by the number of mature bucks that show up on trail cameras,'' he said. "It used to be that I'd see one good buck on the cameras. Now I might see four or five.''
The system isn't perfect, Iverson said. Similar results perhaps could be achieved if the firearms deer season were moved back a couple of weeks, as it is in Wisconsin, away from the peak of the whitetail rut.
But that idea gained even less support among southeast hunters than APR did.
"I think we can make a compelling case to continue APR in the southeast," DNR wildlife research manager Lou Cornicelli said. "It's showing good results that we can document, and it seems more and more hunters approve of it."
In coming weeks, the DNR will again survey southeast hunters to gauge their opinions about APR, and also will hold public meetings throughout the region so hunters can make their cases for or against.
Then, come January, all of the information will be presented to the Legislature, with the hope that APR in the southeast is allowed to continue.
"Talking to hunters at check stations on the opener, a bunch of them said they weren't for APR when it first came out,'' Cornicelli said. "Now they support it. Passing on a fork now, they say, is no big deal.''
Photos appearing with this column were first published in the Rochester Post-Bulletin, along with reporting by Eric Atherton.
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