Legislature considering trophy deer regulations

Field Editor

St. Paul The Minnesota Legislature will be considering trophy
deer hunting regulations in four northwestern Minnesota counties.
At press time, state Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, was
expected to propose “Quality Deer Management (QDM)” rules for
Kittson, Marshall, Roseau, and Pennington counties.

Under the proposal, hunters could only kill bucks with four
points or more on one antler or with an antler spread wider than
the deer’s ears in an alert position. However, hunters in the four
counties will still be able to kill two bucks (the only place in
the state where this is allowed) using more than one weapon, such
as with a bow and with a gun. Also proposed is a special,
antlerless-deer-only firearms youth hunt that would be held on
October’s MEA weekend.

DNR Commissioner Gene Merriam, who joined Stumpf and Congressman
Collin Peterson for a morning hunt on a farm where QDM is
voluntarily practiced last November, says his agency hasn’t
formulated a position on the proposal. QDM advocates met recently
with DNR officials and Merriam says the concerns of state wildlife
professionals were “social concerns, not wildlife management
concerns.” However, he also noted that the DNR has no baseline data
to evaluate a change in the deer hunting regulations, nor any
indication whether trophy-oriented regulations will produce an
adequate harvest to effectively manage the deer populations.

“There are good reasons why we are not touting the regulation
changes,” Merriam said.

The QDM proposal originated with Minnesota Quality Deer
Management, Inc., an organization with 700 members statewide.
Annette Stephens of Greenbush, who with her husband Clyde have
practiced QDM on their 260-acre farm and hosted Merriam, Stumpf,
and Peterson on their hunt last year, says so far they’ve heard no
negative responses to the proposal among the phone calls and
e-mails they receive daily. She says the four counties presently
have an abundance of deer, more evident by the DNR’s issuance of
intensive harvest permits allowing hunters to kill up to five
antlerless deer.

“Our first goal is to reduce doe numbers,” Stephens said.

By requiring hunters to pass up small-antlered bucks, QDM
advocates hope they will instead shoot more antlerless deer.
Stephens said the restriction should protect all yearling bucks and
most 21/2-year-olds. Last November, the Stephens’ four-member
hunting party killed eight does and two bucks, including Annette’s
first.

“They were QDM bucks, with antlers as wide as the ears,” she
said. “They were nice, but not trophies.”

If the proposed youth hunt comes to fruition, young hunters who
participate won’t be allowed to kill antlered bucks. Stephens said
the antlerless-only restriction was based on the concern of some
QDM advocates that kids might kill trophy bucks. However, many
hunters may have other concerns about the October firearms
hunt.

MEA weekend, when the hunt is proposed, is at the height of bird
hunting season, a time when camouflaged waterfowl and grouse
hunters are afield with their dogs. Clark Hendrickson of Thief
River Falls says he has safety concerns about heading out with his
Chesapeake Bay retriever to hunt ducks and grouse while a youth
deer hunt is occurring.

“Waterfowl hunters are out very early and late in the day,”
Hendrickson said. “I don’t want someone out there with a deer rifle
at the same time.”

Stephens said QDM advocates have considered the safety aspects
of the youth hunt and are suggesting that bird hunters, and perhaps
their dogs, be required to wear hunter orange clothing when the
youth hunt is occurring.

Hendrickson, who has hunted deer in Minnesota for 40 years, said
that he has no problem with individuals or hunting parties choosing
to practice QDM, but he doesn’t believe the concept should be
required by law. He points out Minnesota deer hunting regulations
have already become so complicated that last fall the DNR had to
issue a booklet just to explain to hunters how to buy a deer
license. He also noted all-season and multi-zone buck licenses
already give trophy hunters ample time and opportunities to pursue
large-antlered deer. He is also concerned the Legislature is
overstepping its bounds by creating deer hunting rules.

“Speaking as a deer hunter, I don’t want the Legislature telling
me I can’t shoot a spike buck,” Hendrickson said.

Typically, deer management and hunting regulations are the
province of the DNR’s wildlife professionals. DNR big game
specialist Lou Cornicelli said he hasn’t seen Stumpf’s proposal.
The DNR’s deer committee, made up of the agency’s whitetail
experts, has not discussed the proposal or its possible
implications to deer management.

Although northwestern Minnesota presently has high deer numbers,
historically the population has fluctuated dramatically in response
to winter conditions. Hendrickson said data from a long-standing
aerial survey of the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge, conducted
annually in February, illustrates those fluctuations. In 1995, the
survey counted 1,290 deer. Severe winter weather took its toll and
the population plummeted to 455 deer in ’96, 432 in ’97, and 504 in
98. By 2004, following a string of mild winters, the count reached
1,912 whitetails. The highest count occurred in 1982, at 3,444
deer, a dramatic rise from a winter-induced population crash to 797
in 1978.

“It’s the weather that manages the deer herd in northwestern
Minnesota, not anything else,” Hendrickson said.

Stephens acknowledges deer numbers will rise and fall based on
the weather. While the present deer hunting regulations allow
bucks-only hunting when deer numbers are down, neither she nor
Commissioner Merriam could predict what might occur under the QDM
management scenario.

While a 2002 survey of Minnesota deer hunters found roughly half
had little knowledge of or interest in QDM, Merriam says the
concept has local support in various areas of the state. A QDM
meeting was scheduled for Nisswa on Tuesday night, and a
significant number of hunters in southeastern Minnesota favor
trophy hunting rules. Merriam said he hunted pheasants in
southwestern Minnesota near Comfrey last fall where local
landowners were voluntarily practicing QDM.

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