’15 deer harvest nears 159,000

St. Paul — With just fewer than two weeks remaining in the 2015 deer-hunting season, hunters had killed nearly 20,000 more deer than they did in 2014, according to the Minnesota DNR.

Through Friday, Dec. 18, the total harvest was about 158,400 deer; the archery season runs through the end of the year. The total kill in 2014 was 139,442 animals.

“It doesn’t look like we’ll make 160,000 (deer), but we’ll be close,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations and regulations program manager.

While this year’s total kill will be the second-lowest since the mid-1990s, it is higher than officials predicted going into the season. That’s despite the fact hunting regulations were conservative for the second year in a row.

Merchant believes there are three reasons for the higher kill: More deer on the landscape due to last year’s mild winter; weather that allowed hunters to stay afield; and a slight increase in the number of hunters.

“We’re pleased with the harvest numbers,” said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “We’re glad the DNR had a conservative season and that we’ve got a growing herd. Now that we have a window of time to look at a statewide deer management planning, we need to take advantage of that in 2016 and work with the DNR and other stakeholders to come up with a good management plan.”

The Minnesota legislative auditor currently is conducting an audit of deer management in Minnesota, which is expected to be complete early next year. In addition, the DNR has committed to writing a statewide deer management plan.

“We were blessed with a mild winter, and it looks like we’re having the same again (this year),” Engwall said. “But we can’t rely on weather as a management tool. We have to have a sound management structure in place for the things that wildlife managers do influence.”

Yet it’s clear that severe winters play an important role.

The last times the deer harvest was as low as it’s been the past couple of years were in 1996 and 1997, when there also were severe winters. Hunters in 1997 killed 143,000 deer; they killed nearly 159,000 in 1998. The kill jumped to 180,000 in 1999, and exceeded 200,000 in 2000. (It also had been higher than 200,000 in 1995.)

“Those numbers are very, very comparable to what’s going on right now,” Merchant said.

The archery deer season in the state remains open through the end of the year.

Muzzleloader results

During the muzzleloader season, which ended Dec. 13, hunters killed 6,642 deer. In 2014, muzzleloader hunters killed 6,138 deer.

Those figures are lower than they were in the mid- to late 2000s, when muzzleloader hunters routinely killed in the neighborhood of 10,000 deer during the 16-day season.

Both muzzleloader harvest and participation have fallen off since then, in large part because muzzleloader hunters in lottery areas had to apply for antlerless licenses.

“There are just fewer opportunities,” Merchant said. “I think people aren’t buying that license like they were when you could buy an additional license and take an additional deer wherever you wanted to. It’s just not the way it works right now.”

Big-game program leader

The DNR is closing in on hiring a big-game program leader to replace Leslie McInenly, who left the position earlier this year for another job within the DNR. McInenly held the post for about three years.

Merchant said there were 24 applicants for the position, which manages big-game species in the state, including deer.

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