Minnesota's 500,000 deer hunters usually aren't gun-shy when it comes to voicing their opinion on anything related to deer hunting.
Especially when Minnesota officials tinker with deer regulations or management.
This year, the Department of Natural Resources is floating a possible four-day statewide youth-only deer season in October, a couple weeks before the regular firearms season. Youths age 10-17 would be allowed to kill one either-sex deer. The purpose is to encourage youths to deer hunt at a time when the percentage of young hunters is declining.
The reaction thus far from hunters ranges from "Great idea!" to "Are you crazy?"
"The idea is to provide a high-quality initial hunting experience for youths," said Jay Johnson, DNR hunter recruitment and retention coordinator. And remove barriers to hunting.
"The weather is warmer [in October], there would be less competition in the woods and a parent could focus on their kid," Johnson said. "What a wonderful opportunity for a parent."
A DNR survey of hunters in southeastern Minnesota found that a majority supported a youth deer hunt, and neighboring states all offer some type of youth deer hunt.
But not so fast, says Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.
"We're very interested in getting kids out and creating more opportunities for them, but there's real confusion of why DNR would even consider it statewide, when there are many areas that are lottery-only or bucks-only," said Johnson. "We just don't have the numbers of deer available, especially in the far northeast and southwest."
Said Johnson: "You have a half-million deer hunters out there; if you throw them to the wind and concentrate just on the kids, it doesn't make sense. If you don't provide opportunity for adults, they won't stay in hunting either. You can't give up retention and focus on just recruitment."
A deer hunters association survey of members in southeast Minnesota mirrored the DNR survey: A majority supported the youth hunt. But Johnson said that's far different from a statewide youth hunt. Neither the MDHA nor the DNR has surveyed hunters statewide about the idea.
Since the proposal was announced last month, some online forums have been buzzing. The DNR is taking comments on the youth hunt and several other hunting-related issues at public meetings around the state. The agency also is accepting comments through an online survey. (See accompanying story.)
Public comments at meetings in the southeast supported the idea. But at a meeting in Little Falls last week, there was some opposition, said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game program manager.
"Some said it will ruin the regular [season] hunt, others said youths don't need a special opportunity," he said. But there has been strong support for the youth hunt among the 1,600 people who have taken the DNR's online survey, Cornicelli added.
Cornicelli said he doesn't believe the youth hunt would impact the deer population, the regular firearms season or bow hunters, who would be in the woods at the same time. Bow hunters are among those who have criticized the idea.
"I think the impact would be negligible," Cornicelli said. "There's already people out grouse and duck hunting then. Putting some kids out for a few days likely won't impact the archery season."
Cornicelli said stakeholders at the agency's 2002 roundtable meeting suggested the DNR consider a youth deer hunt.
"We've put a fair amount of thought into this," he said.
The hunt would coincide with annual teachers' conferences, when school is out on a Thursday and Friday in mid-October. Though adults wouldn't be allowed to carry a firearm, some fear they might be tempted to shoot a deer.
"We don't think an individual who goes to the time and effort to take their kid on a special youth hunt will shoot the kid's deer," Cornicelli said. "It just doesn't make any sense. Will someone do it? Yeah, probably. But I don't think it's going to be a big problem."
Officials aren't sure how many youths would partake in a hunt. There are about 55,000 to 60,000 youth hunters now, but Cornicelli said only a percentage of those likely would hunt the youth season. Ideally, the special hunt would attract others who might not have hunted, but it's uncertain how many that might be.
And only a percentage of the youths would bag a deer, Cornicelli said.
The DNR offers a special two-day youth deer hunt in the northwest, and other youth hunts are held around the state. The idea originally was to offer a youth hunt in the southeast, too, but officials decided to consider a statewide hunt.
Jack Peck, secretary of the Bluff-land Whitetails Association in southeastern Minnesota, said his group has suggested for several years that the state launch a youth deer hunt.
"We're one of the only states that doesn't have one," he said. "It's a good way to get kids involved. It's nice and warm out then; we just thought it would be a good idea."
Said the DNR's Johnson: "Once the public weighs in, we'll make a decision."
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org