Far fewer of Minnesota’s half-million deer hunters will return home with venison this fall, due to restrictive hunting regulations announced Wednesday intended to boost the state’s depressed whitetail population.

The deer harvest could dip as low as 120,000, the Department of Natural Resources said, less than half the 272,000 animals taken as recently as 2006.

The deer population already had been intentionally lowered by wildlife managers before it was racked by the past two brutal winters. As a result, in 95 percent of the state this fall, hunters will be restricted to one deer, and in the northeast, only bucks can be targeted — a restriction that also applies to youths, archers and disabled hunters.

Recently, hunters could take up to five deer in some areas.

“We haven’t seen bucks-only hunting in Minnesota in many, many years,” said Steve Merchant, Department of Natural Resources wildlife populations and regulations manager. “This is a very conservative strategy to protect antlerless deer. We are going to see our deer herd grow as a result.”

Kristian Jankofsky, 39, an avid hunter who lives near Chisholm in the northeast, said the restrictive regulations aren’t a surprise, given the severe winters that have pummeled the region’s deer herd.

“Generally hunters are pretty disappointed [in the declining deer herd,” he said. “They liked the fact that they could hunt multiple seasons and kill multiple deer [in the past].”

Merchant said officials expect some hunters might sit out the season because of the tighter regulations. If so, fewer licenses will be sold and the state’s half-billion-dollar deer hunting economy could take a hit.

“I’m sure there will be fewer deer hunters this year, but I don’t think it will be a lot [fewer],” Merchant said. “In Minnesota, deer hunting is more than a body count. Most hunters will still go to deer camp. Fewer hunters will shoot deer, but that’s a small part of deer hunting.”

Jankofsky hunts with seven others at his deer camp.

“It will definitely impact us,” he said. “We like to eat deer. There’s a big communal-social aspect of gathering this meat and sharing it with families throughout the year.”

Mark Johnson, executive director of the 15,000-member Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said he is pleased the DNR is trying to increase deer numbers. Most hunters will accept the lower harvest this year, he said, knowing the results should mean more deer in following years.

“It’s short-term pain for long-term gain,” he said.

Still, other hunters have questioned the DNR’s recent strategy to reduce the deer population in some areas by liberalizing hunting regulations. Many hunters at DNR “listening sessions” last winter said the populations had been reduced too much in some areas. Others in the state, worried about forest plant diversity and crop depredation, believe Minnesota still has too many deer.

“We did very aggressively harvest deer to lower deer populations,” Merchant said. “But two severe winters is what really packed a punch that has resulted in the population being well below goal now.”

He said the deer herd can rebound rather quickly.

“We’ve been through this before. It’s amazingly similar to what occurred in 1996-97” after consecutive brutal winters. Three years later, hunters were harvesting record numbers of whitetails, he said.

But all bets are off if another severe winter strikes.

“We had significant deer mortality across much of northeast Minnesota [last winter],” Merchant said. “If we have another winter like that, we will see the same thing. We need Mother Nature to give us a break.”

Last year, hunters killed about 173,000 deer, the fewest since 1998. With the restrictions, Merchant predicted a harvest range this fall of between 150,000 and 120,000 — as much as a 30 percent drop from last year.

The last time the Minnesota deer harvest was below 150,000 was 1997, when hunters killed 143,000 animals. The state’s record deer kill was 290,000 in 2003.

In 69 of the state’s 128 deer areas where limited numbers of antlerless whitetails can be killed, hunters will have to apply for antlerless permits this fall issued by lottery. Unsuccessful applicants will be limited to shooting bucks.

Hunters in 38 areas, including large portions of the north central and southeast, will have the choice of shooting either an antlerless deer or a buck.

In the Twin Cities metro zone, where the deer population still is considered too high, hunters can purchase an unlimited number of antlerless deer permits.

Meanwhile, Jankofsky, the Chisholm hunter, said his group wouldn’t skip a deer season, even if prospects for bagging a whitetail are low.

“Everybody still will come and we’ll have a good time, eating good food and sharing stories,” he said. “It’s a tradition.”

The regular firearms season opens Nov. 8. Hunters can enter the lottery for antlerless permits from Aug. 1 through Sept. 4. Because of the significant changes this fall, officials urge hunters to review the new regulations, permit area designations and boundary changes. See www.mndnr.gov/hunting/deer for more information.