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Minnesota Zone 3 deer meeting draws a crowd in Winona

Winona, Minn. – Though the tone remained
largely civil, lawmakers got an ear full Wednesday, April 20, at a
public forum in Winona targeting regulation changes for Zone 3 deer
hunters.

State Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, called the meeting, which
about 125 people attended. Miller said he was looking for feedback
on the Zone 3 issue before weighing in on the legislative efforts
of Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, to undo the modifications put
in place last year.

“There are very passionate people on both sides of this issue,”
Miller said. “What I’m wondering is, is there any compromise?”

Changes implemented in Zone 3 include the elimination of
cross-tagging bucks and implementing antler point restrictions
(APRs) requiring that harvested bucks have at least four points on
one antler.

The measures are intended to take pressure off of yearling
bucks, which account for 67 percent of the buck harvest in
Minnesota, and transfer it to does. That percentage is the highest
in the nation according to QDMA, while Minnesota has the lowest
percentage of mature bucks harvested in anywhere measured.

While there are a variety of methods available for population
control, officials say these new regulations can effectively
control the deer population while increasing the number of mature
bucks available for harvest.

Drazkowski said he received half a dozen calls from hunters
disgruntled by the new regulations, and has surveyed a hundred more
who agree. Wednesday evening he questioned the logic of the
restrictions, especially as concerns over chronic wasting disease
rise, and said his intent is to overturn them.

“It doesn’t make sense to enact regulations that limit people’s
ability to take deer,” Drazkowski said.

Lou Cornicelli, big game coordinator for the DNR, explained that
the changes were put in place as a three-year trial after years of
research on hunter preferences.

“It’s been a controversial issue from the start,” he said.
“Seven out of 10 support more mature bucks, but on any solution we
can’t get more than 50 percent support.”

As Cornicelli’s surveys might have predicted, at the forum
roughly half of the speakers said they are entirely opposed to the
regulations and see them as ineffective and intrusive on hunting
traditions.

Farmers represented a large share of those who spoke against the
hunting changes, with many saying the deer population is doing
costly damage to their crops.

“We’ve had a number of farmers contacting us saying the deer
damage is outrageous,” Bob Marg from the Farm Bureau said.

Farmer Rod Sommerfield agrees. “We believe the losses to farmers
far exceed the return the DNR is making in tags,” he said.
Sommerfield proposed that instead of APRs, a surcharge could be
added to buck tags.

“If the premium was high enough who in their right mind would
shoot a small fork buck instead of a doe?”

Farmers, several argued, should be allowed to determine how many
deer should be culled from their property, or the state should
begin reimbursing them for crop losses.

Cornicelli said the DNR has mitigation strategies for farmers
and shoot permits, and that farmers should be contacting their
local conservation officers about the problem.

“We can’t help you if we don’t know about it,” he said.

Wayne Valentine, representing the Minnesota Deer Hunters
Association, said his organization favors using education to
promote voluntary management for mature bucks.

“Eliminate the rules and implement education,” he said. “I know
some of you say it will never work, but what’s the harm in
trying?”

Valentine argued that eliminating cross-tagging threatens family
hunting traditions, and that it’s unrealistic to expect hunters to
positively identify the number of spikes before taking a shot.

Some who came to speak agreed, saying uncertainty in the field
last year cost them bucks.

Wayne Runningen of Houston missed a buck last year because he
couldn’t tell if its brow tines were within regulation, he
said.

“The way it is now a lot of people are going to quit hunting
because it’s too complicated.”

Martin Stubstad, who runs Archery Headquarters in Rochester,
disagreed. “I’m seeing enthusiasm coming back,” he said, “and I
believe fewer animals are wounded because of APRs. You have to
identify the animals.”

Being sure of the shot, others argued, is a responsibility
hunters assume with most game.

Lieutenant Dean Olson, a district supervisor with the DNR, said
officials received 21 calls last year from hunters who said they
accidentally bagged an illegal deer.

“We wrote zero tickets because they did the right thing and
called us,” he said.

Cornicelli said the number of Zone 3 hunters dipped last year by
about 3 percent, but for years has held steady at between 39,000
and 40,000 hunters annually, and he expects that number to remain
stable.

The buck harvest in Zone 3 declined by 30 percent last fall,
Cornicelli said, which was what officials expected in the first
year. The doe harvest did not increase as much as officials
expected, though he said miserable weather during the 3A season
likely held those numbers down.

But next year Cornicelli expects to see buck numbers rebound,
along with hunter satisfaction, as the bucks harvested increase in
maturity.

In other states where APRs have been instituted, Cornicelli
said, hunter satisfaction increased dramatically over time.

Todd Vagts, speaking on behalf of Bluffland Whitetail
Association, said this change has been a decade in the works and is
only set for a three-year trial. “Let it run the process. If three
years out you don’t like it we’ll try something else,” he said.

Vagts also questioned the appropriateness of legislators
usurping the expertise of the DNR in establishing management
strategies.

“When we look at game management it really needs to be left up
to the DNR,” he said. “If you start managing game through the
legislature, where is that going to go through the future?”

Drazkowski argued that the legislature has a long history of
involving itself in game management.

All of the speakers who said they support APRs agreed with Vagts
that it is premature to upend the three-year trial after just one
season, particularly because the first year is the hardest.

“You wouldn’t judge a prize fight after the first round,” Scott
Bjornson said. “Who is so afraid of a trial process that they will
pull every trick out of the trick bag to undo it before the public
can see if it works?”

With research that backs the management plan and the first year
out of the way, many in support of the new regulations encouraged
officials to trust the process based on results elsewhere and the
time invested so far.

“You’ve done the heavy lifting,” Robert Bozovsky said. “You
should give it a couple more years to run its course.”

But members of the MDHA disagreed, handing over a petition
asking that the trial be scrapped. Supporters of the APRs and ban
on buck cross-tagging, many of them members of BWA, handed over
their own petition saying just the opposite.

Michael Sieve, who said he is a member of both, proposed a
compromise that would let the trial run its course but form a task
force made up of farmers, the DNR, legislators, tourism officials
and anyone else interested in the issue.

“Let’s bring this into a sane, controlled environment with real
facts,” he said. “Perhaps Bluffland Whitetails and Minnesota Deer
Hunters could come together and lead it.” The task force, Sieve
said, could evaluate the results of the trial and determine the
best direction for Zone 3 to go when three years is up.

Drazkowski’s legislation is currently in committee in the House
and does not at this time have a companion bill in the Senate.

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