A special January 2018 antlerless whitetail season might be held in three southeastern Minnesota deer permit areas with a bag limit of five animals per hunter, Department of Natural Resources officials said last week.

The proposed hunts in permit areas 346, 348 and 349, which surround such towns as Caledonia, Rushford and Spring Grove, would occur simultaneously with a hunt in Deer Permit Area 603, the special zone established last year after chronic wasting disease (CWD) was discovered in wild deer near Preston and Harmony, Minn.

No bag limit would be placed on hunters in area 603, because the DNR wants to significantly reduce deer numbers there to limit the further spread of CWD.

The January hunt idea in the other three permit areas surprised deer-hunting group leaders last week when the DNR told them about the proposal before a monthly Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee meeting.

That panel was formed last year after the legislative auditor said the DNR should develop a formal deer management plan. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr responded that his agency would “work to involve hunters and other stakeholders” in development of a plan — thus the formation of the advisory committee, which has met since January.

“Which is why this took us by such surprise when we were told before our monthly meeting Wednesday that the DNR was proposing a January hunt in the southeast with a five-deer limit,’’ said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “Notice of the hunt will be included in the deer hunting synopsis booklet, which is already at the printer, and we weren’t told anything about it, or consulted, until after the fact.’’

Said Marty Stubstad, a board member of Bluffland Whitetails in the southeast and, like Engwall, an advisory committee member, “When they told us about this on Wednesday I got a big knot in my stomach. How could they drop this on us this way?’’

DNR wildlife populations program manager Steve Merchant emphasized Friday that the hunt hasn’t been finalized, and that at least two public input meetings will be held before it is, one in the Twin Cities and one in the southeast.

The hunts, if they occur, will happen Jan. 6-14 in the three permit areas. The limit of five antlerless deer per hunter would be in addition to five deer allowed in those areas during a fall antlerless season and three allowed in the regular season, for a 13-deer total (only one of which could be a buck). Landowners could take another deer yet.

The deer permit areas are home to relatively high concentrations of trophy bucks, which are valued by hunters in the southeast who worry that some bucks in the region will drop their antlers before the January hunt, rendering them vulnerable to harvest.

Merchant doesn’t think that will happen to a significant degree. “Because we’re exceeding [our deer population] goals in the area, we’re already shooting dozens of deer there in the summer with [landowner] shooting permits, which we don’t like to do,’’ he said.

DNR fish and wildlife division director Jim Leach acknowledged Friday his agency “should have pulled them [deer hunting groups] in a little earlier.’’

Stubstad said his group likely will tell the DNR it doesn’t want the hunt held on public land, of which there is relatively little in the region. “If landowners have a problem, let’s kill deer where the problem is, not wipe out all the deer on the little public land that we have,’’ he said.