Bagging a buck on the opening weekend of the Minnesota firearms deer season proved more difficult than usual in conditions that were windy and unseasonably warm, state officials said.
The important two-day harvest plunged 21% in comparison to last year's opener and ranks well below average. In addition, hunting license sales were flat and too few hunters complied with chronic wasting disease (CWD) testing.
"We did not have a great opening weekend,'' said Barbara Keller, big-game program leader for the Department of Natural Resources.
Keller said hunters took 59,711 whitetails Saturday and Sunday, 16% below the five-year mean. The results dim chances that hunters will achieve the DNR's deer-management goals for 2020 because half the overall firearms harvest normally happens on opening weekend.
Archery, muzzleloader and youth hunts contribute to the state's overall deer harvest, but firearms account for 75 to 80% of the kill.
"Hopefully we'll see some improvement,'' Keller said.
DNR conservation officers from the North Shore to the Driftless Area observed limited success on the opener, often commenting in their reports from Saturday and Sunday that the weather — while pleasant for hunters — stifled deer movement.
"Deer season was off to a slow start and hunters reported far more squirrels than anything else,'' conservation officer Mary Manning wrote in her report from the North Shore community of Hovland.
In Orr, conservation officer Troy Fondie reported "one of the poorest deer openers … with few deer and fewer people.'' Nearby in Ely, conservation officer John Velsvaag also noted a reduction in hunting pressure.
Similarly in Winona and Rochester, game wardens noticed fewer deer taken than usual.
"A couple of nice bucks were checked, but most people were unable to harvest a deer,'' wrote conservation officer Clint Fitzgerald of Rochester.
In the weeks leading up to the firearms opener, DNR wildlife managers had every reason to expect a bountiful deer harvest. The archery season was more productive than it was in 2019 and youth hunters over MEA weekend also did well.
License sales, too, were running ahead of expectations. One week before the opener, DNR had sold 173,883 deer licenses of all types, a 14% increase over the same period in 2019.
But by Monday after opening weekend, the gap was erased. Total deer license sales of 402,629 by Monday were even with the same period last year.
Keller said the early success by archery hunters and youth hunters partly offset the slow start to the firearms season. The combined harvest as of Tuesday of this week was 94,396 deer, down 11% from last year.
Of the 59,711 deer harvested over the firearms opening weekend, 64% were adult bucks, 24% were adult does, 5% were female fawns and 7% were button bucks.
For DNR wildlife researchers, the biggest disappointment last weekend was poor cooperation in the agency's voluntary CWD testing program.
The surveillance is needed in five areas of the state where the risk of CWD spreading in wild deer is greatest. In previous years, the testing of tissue samples was mandatory in designated zones.
This year, sampling was made voluntary to avoid large gatherings of hunters and DNR staff.
After recently mailing reminders to license buyers, the DNR was hoping for at least 50% participation by firearms hunters.
But Keller said sampling on the opening weekend of the firearms season fell well below 30% — the mark nearly achieved by archery and youth hunters.
In Deer Permit Area 605 based in Dakota County, for example, only 15% of the 700 deer harvested on Saturday and Sunday were sampled. Keller said there's still time for hunters to drop deer heads in the DNR's collection boxes. Without a major increase in participation, she said, researchers will lose a year of tracking the location and prevalence of the disease in wild deer.
In other news from opening weekend, no hunting-related deaths were reported but a hunter in Traverse County was shot in the leg while loading a deer into the back of a truck.
In Becker County, a hunter from Blaine went missing and was found deceased after a two-day search. The sheriff's office was investigating, but said no foul play was suspected.
Meanwhile, DNR's enforcement division is investigating the shooting of a bull elk in Whitewater Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Minnesota, far away from the state's two wild elk regions.
Keller said the agency submitted tissue samples from the animal to test for CWD. The medium-sized elk was shot by a deer hunter on opening morning, the DNR said. There were no markings on the animal to suggest it was an escaped, captive deer, Keller said. Investigators are trying to find out where it came from.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213