Minnesota deer management hits roadblock

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2009 - 2:18 AM

 Hunters clamor for larger herds of mature bucks, and while protecting yearlings would be a start, addressing regional needs complicates the big picture.

A small but vocal cadre of deer hunters that wants whitetail hunting and management to change significantly in Minnesota made its case last weekend at the Department of Natural Resources stakeholder meetings in Brooklyn Center.

These hunters -- many from the southeast part of the state -- want more mature bucks in the herd, and a more balanced ratio of bucks to does. To achieve this, yearling bucks would have to be protected from hunters, and more does would need to be included in the overall harvest.

Sounds easy enough to implement, and DNR wildlife section chief Dennis Simon said at the conclusion of the agency's annual roundtable that his department will hold meetings statewide to explore regulatory changes on a regional basis.

Advocates at the meeting of "quality deer management'' praised Simon's announcement. Particularly pleased were members of the Bluffland Whitetails Association. The southeast Minnesota group has long believed that if most or all of the approximately 45,000 yearling bucks killed each fall by Minnesota hunters were protected (and certain other regulatory changes were made), the state would rise fairly quickly to national prominence, based on the percentage of bucks in its herd older than 2.5 years.

But complications associated with such changes abound. Among them:

• Most Minnesota deer hunters are casual in their approach to the sport. Ask them whether they want to see and shoot fewer deer most years than they do now, while raising the possibility that every few years they might get a chance to shoot a mature buck, a significant share would say no.

• Reducing the overall harvest -- which would likely be necessary -- to increase the percentage of older bucks in a region's herd likely would trigger a falloff in the number of people who hunt deer. Currently, Minnesota has some 500,000 deer hunters. The sport has become the entry to hunting for most youngsters, replacing grouse, pheasant and ducks as game species sought by first-time hunters. But with hunters' ranks declining nationwide (Minnesota so far is generally an exception), hunting advocates, including the DNR and some conservation groups, likley would not support changes that might cause hunters to leave the sport.

• Minnesota's varied landscapes support whitetail herds of different sizes and compositions, and any significant changes to deer hunting in the state would have to occur on a regional basis -- thereby complicating deer-hunting regulations at a time when some hunters have said they want simpler rules.

Further complicating the deer-management picture is the difficult winter the state is experiencing. Deer in many parts of the state already are stressed, and if the remainder of the winter brings continued cold and more snow, animal losses will mount.

Arguably, many parts of the state already have too few deer, evidenced, in part, by the 15 percent decline in the whitetail harvest last fall from the 2007 harvest. Such areas would include the southwest, and portions of west-central, east-central and north-central Minnesota. Reasons for these population fall-offs are varied, but the issuance of too many antlerless permits in recent years has played a role.

Additionally, in the northeast, wolves are killing a significant number of deer, and the presence of so many wolves in that region presents a wild card to wildlife managers trying to affect deer there via regulation change.

Consider also:

Regardless of the merits of any deer-hunting regulation changes, the DNR will resist altering current restrictions significantly if a majority of hunters protests too loudly.

Granted, the DNR shouldn't shy from rocking the regulation boat, assuming any changes would benefit deer and/or other wildlife. And balancing the herd more evenly between bucks and does, and including more mature bucks in the herd, might be right thing to do. But in Minnesota, if the DNR strays too far from majority rule, it risks involving the Legislature, many of whose members are only too happy to introduce bills intending to manage wildlife "their'' way, while showboating to constituents.

The upshot: Quality deer management proponents in the southeast are correct to push for certain regulation changes, among them better protection for yearling bucks and the elimination of party hunting for bucks. Some of these changes eventually might be applicable to other parts of the state.

But expect the DNR to tiptoe toward any major deer-management changes -- or wish it had.

danderson@startribune.com

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