Think you had a hard time finding deer in Minnesota's recently concluded firearms season, during which the harvest was down about 8% from last year — in part due to fewer hunters being afield?

If so, things could have been worse. You could have hunted this fall in Deer Permit Area (DPA) 131 near the North Shore in northeast Minnesota.

Preliminary numbers show a harvest there of 61 whitetails total. Fifty were bucks, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Seven were adult does, one was a doe fawn and three were buck fawns.

Those are numbers for one of the state's largest DPAs, measuring 899 square miles, which during last firearms season (2020) hosted 773 hunters.

Deer Permit Area 117 along the Gunflint Trail had an even skimpier harvest this season.

A total of 11 whitetails were killed in its 927 square miles, down by about half from the 21 that were felled in 2020, when 132 firearms hunters patrolled it.

In fact, in varying degrees, low deer harvest numbers were registered this fall across parts of northeast Minnesota and the state's north-central region.

Steeped in generations-old deer-hunting traditions, northern Minnesota is home to countless deer camps.

"We're aware hunters are not satisfied with deer populations in the northeast,'' DNR big game program supervisor Barb Keller said last week.

Even some Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers were among northern hunters challenged to bring home venison.

Assistant area wildlife manager Mark Spoden of Grand Rapids and the handful of hunters in his party found just one buck this fall while hunting public land near Kelliher.

"I have the same kinds of problems in my management area (surrounding Grand Rapids) that are being seen in the northeast,'' Spoden said. "Deer populations just don't seem to recover. Or they recover very slowly, and if they do recover, they do so more often on private land, whereas on public land, deer numbers are often lower.''

Spoden said several consecutive mild winters might be needed to increase northern Minnesota deer populations "above the point where they outproduce what predators can consume.''

"Right now,'' Spoden said, "it seems predators are consuming the surplus.''

But predators — mainly wolves — aren't the only factor affecting deer in the north, and especially the northeast.

Some of the region's forests are aging, which doesn't serve deer well, while forests elsewhere in the Arrowhead are being aggressively cut, in some cases reducing available deer winter cover, according to DNR wildlife managers.

Tough, long-lasting winters also hinder deer populations in the north and northeast. Notably, the winter of 2013-2014 was brutal across the region, suppressing deer numbers that in some parts of the north haven't recovered.

DNR acting area wildlife manager Penny Backman, who works out of Orr and now also out of the DNR's Tower office, said habitat changes might be reducing deer winter survival in parts of the north.

"In certain sections of the northeast where timber markets are strong, forests are being managed more intensively than in years past,'' Backman said. "They're cutting trees a lot younger. We need 40 to 60 percent canopy closure for deer yards and other areas that winter deer. That's hard to get when the majority of aspen stands are being harvested at 45 years.''

Moose also factor into deer management in what is called the state's northeast moose zone, or DPAs 117, 118, 126, 130 and 131.

In that area, the state's moose management plan calls for deer populations not to exceed 10 per square mile. The intent is to reduce the likelihood that brain worm, which white-tailed deer carry benignly, can infect and kill moose.

But in parts of the moose range, deer densities don't approach 10 per square mile, and are unlikely to anytime soon.

Bucks-only rule isn't helping

Wildlife managers often use hunting regulations — specifically, the issuance or withholding of antlerless permits — to increase or suppress deer numbers. If too many whitetails exist on a landscape, more antlerless permits are issued. If too few deer are present, antlerless permits are restricted or withheld altogether.

Again this fall, in the northeast, firearms hunters in DPAs 119, 118, 130 and 132 were limited to bucks only, a management action that theoretically, over time, would increase deer numbers in these areas.

But the opposite has happened: The region's buck harvest last year declined by about 20% from the average number of bucks killed by hunters between 2010 and 2020.

Hunters' harvests, particularly the number of bucks killed, are used by DNR researchers to model, or estimate, deer populations in individual DPAs.

The models, in turn, determine how many antlerless permits will be issued in a given DPA.

But with antlerless permits already completed withheld in some northeast Minnesota DPAs, deer managers are out of harvest-related options to increase the herd in these areas.

"We don't believe the lack of deer recovery in the region is harvest related,'' Keller said. "We have research projects ongoing that are studying how deer yards and their availability in winter affect deer survival.''

The projects' goal, said DNR researcher Glen DelGiudice, is to better determine what habitat types northern Minnesota deer use in winter so these preferences can be integrated into timber-cutting plans.

Now in their fifth and final winter, the studies, one headquartered near Longville and the other near Orr, are revealing highly detailed movements by whitetail does fitted with sophisticated radio collars that record and transmit their movements day and night.

"We can tell when the deer are moving, bedded or feeding, and by interfacing this information with landscape data, we can tell if the deer are in white cedar, aspen or another cover types,'' DelGiudice said. "We also can tell how big these cover types are, what their edge-to-area ratio is and what parts of the cover the deer are using.''

As winters progress and snow deepens and temperatures plummet, habitats that deer use and avoid also are being learned.

"Nutrition is important to deer survival, as is energy conservation,'' DelGiudice said. "We know dense conifer stands are important, both for thermo-regulation and also to provide much shallower snow depths. But access to food nearby is also important, both for nutrition and to avoid predators.''

Wolf predation on the studies' collared does has increased from about 10 percent in 2018 to as much as 25 percent last winter, DelGiudice said.

The hope is that these and future, similar studies are used by foresters as well as wildlife managers in a coordinated effort to benefit not only deer, but also moose and even wolves.

Meanwhile, Keller will lead public-input efforts this winter to revisit deer population and harvest goals in northeast Minnesota.

"Also, our moose management plan is aging and probably should be updated pretty soon, and our wolf plan will be completed next year,'' Keller said.

Upshot: Stay tuned.