New rules, altered deer-permit boundaries and — throughout much of the state — more opportunities to kill more deer await Minnesota firearms whitetail hunters this fall.
But the biggest regulatory change will occur in special chronic wasting disease (CWD) management zones established by the Department of Natural Resources.
The state’s first CWD-infected wild deer was found in Olmsted County in 2010, followed in 2016 by three positive wild deer in Fillmore County. Most recently, infected wild deer have been detected in Crow Wing County, Douglas County and, in March of this year, in Dakota County.
In response, the DNR years ago established testing stations in the CWD zones to analyze deer killed by hunters, and since 2002 has assessed more than 90,000 wild deer.
This year, three new CWD surveillance areas and an additional CWD management zone (No. 605 in the south metro) have been established by the DNR.
But rather than compulsory testing of hunter-killed deer in the CWD zones, as was required previously, testing this fall will be voluntary, said Barbara Keller, DNR big game program leader.
“We’re moving to voluntary compliance due to COVID-19 to ensure the safety of hunters and staff,” she said.
The DNR plans to establish drop-off boxes or other repositories in CWD management zones where hunters can leave heads of their harvested animals, along with information about where the deer was killed. After an animal is tested, results will be forwarded to the hunter.
Restrictions from past years governing removal of deer carcasses from CWD management zones remain in place, Keller said, noting that deer killed in these areas can’t be removed whole from CWD zones until test results have been returned.
“Deer can be deboned or quartered and those meat parts can be taken out of the zones before tests are completed, but the remainder of a carcass can’t be moved until a ‘not-detected’ test result is returned,” Keller said.
The DNR will place dumpsters at as-yet undetermined locations in CWD management zones for carcasses.
The switch to voluntary compliance could reduce the number of deer tested, possibly underestimating the spread of CWD. But Keller said the agency had no choice, given the pandemic.
“We’re highly encouraging hunters [in CWD zones] to get their deer tested,’’ Keller said. “We’re optimistic we’ll have good numbers.’’
The state’s overall harvest of 183,637 deer last year is likely to be exceeded this fall, Keller said, in part because bag limits have been increased in 28 permit areas, in part because the statewide youth deer hunt initiated last October will be repeated, and in part because the four-day early antlerless season held last year in nine deer permit areas has been expanded to 16 permit areas.
Hunters can kill up to five antlerless deer during the special October hunt, none of which count against their limits in the state’s regular-season November hunt.
“Deer population trends in these areas have been increasing,’’ Keller said.
Meanwhile, some regions of northeast Minnesota remain mired on the opposite end of the deer-abundance spectrum. Some areas (see map) where whitetail populations are down due to recent tough winters and wolf depredation are governed by bucks-only restrictions this year.
In one such area — 118 — the DNR estimates deer density at only four per square mile. In permit areas 119 and 108, seven deer per square mile are estimated. These numbers pale compared to the 30 deer per square mile found in regions of the state where far better habitat and weather conditions prevail.
While it’s unlikely northeast deer populations will increase substantially without a series of mild winters and/or a renewal of wolf hunting and trapping, some hunters are nevertheless critical of the computer modeling methodology the DNR uses to estimate deer numbers, arguing there are even fewer deer in parts of the northeast than the agency believes.
Eric Michel of the DNR’s Madelia office is in charge of the population model. While acknowledging the model will be replaced next year, he stressed no model can accurately measure deer densities by itself.
“The model estimate is not that clear-cut,’’ he said. “To estimate deer density, we also look at the buck harvest, among other data, and also weigh what local wildlife managers are seeing on the ground.”
In another important change this fall, antler point restrictions will be lifted in the four southeast permit areas where they were in effect last year. The establishment of the south metro CWD management zone made the restrictions impractical, Keller said.
The change also means party hunting of bucks in the affected permit areas is legal this year, as it is elsewhere in the state.