Change is pondered in southeast, where goal is bigger bucks

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2009 - 10:19 AM

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ROCHESTER - The deer season in southeastern Minnesota would be shifted a week later and cross-tagging of bucks there would be illegal if Jim Vagts had his way.

And there appears to be at least a chance he will.

The goal would be to increase the number of bigger bucks by reducing the number of yearling bucks harvested each fall.

"Some deer hunters want more from their hunting experience than just harvesting a deer,'' said Vagts, of the Bluffland Whitetails Association, a southeast Minnesota group that has pushed for significant deer management changes in the region.

Vagts, of Harmony, Minn., was among about 75 hunters and wildlife officials from Minnesota and other states who gathered here Friday at a deer management roundtable to discuss possible changes to management of the southeast herd, whether regulations could be adopted to help create bigger bucks, what ramifications the changes would have on the deer herd and hunters -- and whether hunters would accept them.

The issue has been controversial. Some hunters are less interested in shooting a big buck than in just bagging a deer. Leaders of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), who attended the session, said the group opposes mandatory regulations aimed at growing larger bucks or restricting party hunting. And a bill was introduced at the Legislature this session to prevent shifting the southeast deer hunting dates.

But the winds of change seem to be blowing.

"We're open to considering changes,'' said Dave Schad, Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife director, who attended the session along with several other DNR leaders. Interest and support for such ideas has grown, especially in the southeast, Schad said.

"We can continue to debate it for years, but we'll never know until we try it,'' Schad said. "But we won't do anything to compromise our ability to manage the deer population.''

The strong DNR presence at the session, he said, "is an indication of how important an issue this is.'' He said the agency likely would offer a pilot proposal in a limited area. "We're committed to exploring this,'' he said.

The DNR intends to survey 3,000 southeast hunters this summer to ask their opinions on a variety of potential changes, including antler-point restrictions, moving the season later and eliminating cross-tagging of bucks, which allows a hunter to shoot a buck for another member of his party. Public input would be sought too, before any proposals are made, officials said.

No changes will be made this year. But changes could come in 2010. Talk is focusing only on southeast Minnesota, which has a higher deer density than northern Minnesota.

"I see no interest in the northeast for any of this,'' said Lou Cornicelli, DNR deer specialist. "There's some interest in the northwest.''

A 2005 DNR survey of southeastern Minnesota deer hunters showed 73 percent were satisfied with their hunt, but just 45 percent were satisfied with the quality of bucks. When given potential alternatives, 51 percent supported antler point restrictions, 48 percent supported no cross-tagging for bucks and 34 percent supported moving the deer season. Overall, 69 percent supported regulations to increase mature bucks.

But Cornicelli said wildlife managers and hunters have to be cautious about how to interpret such responses. Because surveys show that hunter satisfaction with some of these more restrictive regulations tends to become more popular with time as hunter adapt to them and see the results. For example, earn-a-buck restrictions were imposed at Itasca State Park several years ago as an experiment. Even though buck harvest in the park declined, the popularity of the earn-a-buck restriction increased significantly over three years. Hunters are seeing more bucks and bigger bucks there.

"We can't change regulations without public support, but we really have to assume there will be increased satisfaction and support over time,'' Cornicelli said. "You may have only 40 or 45 percent support the first year, but you may have 60 percent support after three years.''

Cornicelli said he often hears from hunters who say they will quit hunting if more restrictive regulations are imposed. He doesn't think that will happen with a restriction on cross-tagging bucks.

"I don't think they'd quit if you tell them they have to shoot their own bucks, and not their buddy's,'' Cornicelli said. "We're one of the few states that allows that.''

Requiring a lottery for buck licenses, on the other hand, could force some hunters to quit or go elsewhere, he said.

Antler-point restrictions is another option, though Vagt said his group doesn't want them. Only bucks with a certain number of points could be shot. The idea, again, is to spare young bucks so they will grow bigger. But there is a price to pay.

"Antler-point restrictions will restrict harvest,'' said Marrett Grund, DNR farmland deer biologist. "Hunters need to be aware that hunter success rates would significantly decline.''

In Minnesota, about 60 percent of bucks shot are yearlings, among the highest in the nation.

"But we have lots of hunters, a longer season and allow party hunting for bucks,'' Cornicelli said.

Friday's session was sponsored by the Bluffland Whitetails Association.

"We don't want people to think we're elitist or a trophy group,'' said Tom McConnell, a Bluffland Whitetails board member from Eyota.

He said the group simply wants to increase the opportunity for hunters to shoot a quality deer. The group is concerned that the hunting season comes at the peak of the rut, when bucks are especially vulnerable.

There's also concern that removing bucks from the population before they have bred could hurt the gene pool.

Also attending were representatives from the Quality Deer Management Association, the MDHA and the Minnesota Bow Hunters Association. A recent Bow Hunters Association survey showed 56 percent supported some type of quality deer management. Deer biologists from Missouri and Iowa also attended and described deer management in their states.

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