Minnesota's 2023 deer season, already known to hunters as a disappointment, was officially declared a downer this week by the Department of Natural Resources.

The agency's final report not only confirmed a dismal situation in the northeast region, where harvest nose-dived 21%, but it also disclosed declines in the state's three other hunting regions. The state's overall harvest of 158,678 whitetails fell 8% compared to the 2022 season, 14% below than the state's five-year average.

"In recent years, deer populations have been lower in northern Minnesota, particularly following the severe winters of 2021-2022 and 2022-2023," Todd Froberg, DNR's big game program coordinator, said in a news release.

In areas with deep snow or insufficient winter habitat, deer expend more energy to acquire food, making them more vulnerable to predators, Froberg said. He added: "Wolves play a large role as a predator of deer, especially in winter, but there is little evidence to suggest that northern Minnesota's low deer numbers are directly due to wolf predation.''

He said the influence of wolves can be exacerbated by poor-quality wintering habitat. DNR's wildlife managers have been saying publicly since 2018 that northern deer are losing winter habitat due to logging practices on public lands.

Froberg said this winter's mild conditions bode well for deer in northern Minnesota, but the animals will need several mild winters to "start to recover'' their population.

The deer season report said archery harvest totaled 24,088 deer, similar to 2022. Crossbow usage became legal for all deer hunters in 2023 for the first time, and 43% of the archery harvest was by hunters using crossbows. Froberg said the sale of archery licenses increased 6%, with youth licenses making up most of the increase.

"Lots of kids who weren't archery hunting in the past were able to use crossbows and go hunting during the archery season,'' he said.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) remains relatively rare in Minnesota, but the agency detected the disease in 43 hunter-harvested deer during the hunt. Of those, 91% were in the southeast region, where CWD infections are described by the agency as "persistent.''

Deer permit area 342, near Wabasha, was the only location where CWD popped up for the first time. Before the 2023 season, the DNR added permit area 342 to its testing zone in response to detections of CWD in wild deer in bordering Buffalo County, Wis., in 2022.

Wisconsin also reported a significant statewide harvest decline for 2023. Wisconsin hunters took 13.6% fewer deer in 2023 than 2022, said Brooke VanHandel of the Wisconsin DNR. The 2023 harvest totaled 294,024 deer, she told the Star Tribune.