Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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How the 2022 Minnesota whitetail season may affect 2023

St. Paul — The Minnesota deer-hunting season continues, with archers allowed to hunt through Dec. 31, but it’s mostly just diehard hunters who remain at this point.

Therefore, deer harvest numbers are close to where
they will be at the end of the year. As of Dec. 19, that cumulative
harvest was at 170,207. That’s 7% lower than last year and 9% lower than the five-year mean.

Deer hunters had a strong finish to the muzzleloader season, during which they killed a total of 10,706 deer. That’s 5% higher than last year and 13% higher than the five-year mean, and it’s the highest total harvest during muzzleloader season since 2007.

“Muzzleloader harvest has been increasing since 2019,” said Barb Keller, the DNR’s big-game program leader.

Weather cooperated for hunters during much of the Nov. 26 through Dec. 11 muzzleloader season. That may have helped to increase the number of days hunters got into the woods.

There also were more freezers left to fill this year following the lower deer harvest during the regular firearms season. It looks like this year’s cumulative statewide harvest will finish at its lowest level since 2015, when hunters registered 159,343 deer.

Statewide deer harvest fluctuates from year to year based on multiple factors, but one of the objectives of the DNR’s statewide deer management plan released ahead of the 2019 season was to manage toward a deer population that could support a harvest of 200,000 each year.

Since then, the closest hunters have come to shooting that many deer was in 2020 when 197,315 deer were registered. Hunters killed 183,637 deer in 2019, and 184,698 a year ago.

Keller was asked if the goal of harvesting 200,000 deer a year in Minnesota is still realistic. She pointed to managing individual deer permit areas toward population goals at a much smaller scale as to why that may be difficult.

“If we just cared about that 200,000 harvest goal and nothing else, we would just have a five-deer bag limit throughout the state because all we cared about was meeting that,” she said. “But that’s not how we manage the population. We manage for population goals at the permit area scale. I would say in not all years is it appropriate to meet that. If deer populations are doing well throughout the state, we might be able to meet it. When we’re coming off a severe winter in northern Minnesota, I don’t know that it’s feasible.”

Five years ago, the northwest, northeast, and central (which includes many southeastern DPAs) regions all accounted for about 29%, respectively, of the deer shot statewide.

“That’s not the case now,” Keller said. “The central region is leading at 38%. The northeast used to be a top contributor. It (was) 32% 10 years ago in 2012. Now it’s 19% (the region with the second-lowest take). The northeast, in the past, has been a significant contributor to the statewide harvest. … If those numbers were to increase, I think meeting the 200,000 harvest goal could potentially be achieved if populations in north-central and portions of northeast were to recover.”

Keller pointed to research currently being conducted in northern Minnesota that she hopes will provide more definitive answers when it’s completed regarding the level at which winters, predation, and habitat are contributing to the population decline in the northeast.

“I think winter is a big factor, but we’ve had severe winters in the past
that deer have recovered from more quickly than they are now,” Keller
said. “There were also wolves in the past when deer have recovered more quickly, so it seems like something has changed. I’m hoping the research will help us determine what’s going on.”

Looking toward next season

The DNR uses multiple methods to assess each deer season across the state.

It will soon look at all the harvest data – deer registered, license
sales, and the success rate of individual hunters – from each permit
area.

“That’s one big part of it, and then there’s the area manager, local expert assessment of what they’re seeing on the ground, and what they’re hearing from hunters,” Keller said. “Then there’s what we hear directly from the public.”

She said the DNR encourages hunters to reach out to their local wildlife managers at any time to share their thoughts about the deer herd in their areas.

“We’ll have some opportunities coming up later this winter and early spring where we’ll be asking the public to connect with their area managers,” Keller said. “We’ll have our open house during March, and we’ll also have our online input survey that we’ll have available during that timeframe as well.”

The DNR also will run its population models later in the spring that takes into account harvest data and success, along with winter severity.

“Those are the main things we use to assess this past hunting season and where the deer populations are at,” Keller said. “I would say they’re somewhat equally balanced. If we have the population model telling us the population is going up in a certain area, but the area managers are saying it’s not, and the local hunters are saying it’s not, then we’re probably going to look at that with some suspicion. We’re going to look at where the weight of the evidence is.”

Population goal setting in east-central Minnesota

Hunters in the east-central portion of the state will have an opportunity to take part in that region’s official deer population goal-setting process this winter.

Deer permit areas included in this are 152, 155, 156, 157, 159, 172, 183,
219, 221, 222, 223, 224, 225, 227, 229, 235, 236, 248, 249, 285, 338,
604, and 605.

The DNR already has processed the results from mail surveys sent out last winter to landowners and deer hunters from these DPAs. The data from those surveys will form the foundation for a more open discussion that will take place at public meetings across that region.

“It will be likely sometime in January when that starts,” Keller said.
“We’re still finalizing that and will be putting out some information on
when the public should be aware of upcoming meetings. That data (from the surveys) really forms a good foundation because (they’re) randomized surveys that are sent out.”

Information gathered from this process will help the DNR determine whether deer populations for specific areas should remain stable, decrease, or increase (and by how much) in coming years.

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