by Jason Abraham
Growing up in southeastern Minnesota, I used a very simple deer hunting strategy. I found a comfortable place to sit in the woods, opened a thermos of coffee, and waited for a deer to come by. Nothing special, it just worked more often than not.
But it wasn't my hunting instincts, or my coffee, that got deer coming. The strategy worked because of the abundance of whitetails in the rolling wooded bluffs along the Mississippi River.
"It's probably the best deer habitat in Minnesota," says Lou Cornicelli, big-game program leader for the Department of Natural Resources. "In terms of habitat and the quality and percentage of mature bucks that are taken, the central part of the state is good, but the southeast part of the state is probably better."
Southeastern Minnesota has superb deer habitat and too many deer in many places. For the past five years, the DNR has been studying regulations aimed at reducing the deer population while increasing the potential for larger-antlered bucks. This year, the DNR will implement these new regulations in southeast Minnesota.
Deer densities in the southeast are among the state's highest, ranging from 10 to 23 deer per square mile, depending on habitat. In most of the state, the density of deer ranges from 1 to 10 deer per square mile. Deer densities are high in southeast Minnesota's oak forests and agricultural fields because the area provides abundant acorns, corn, and alfalfa for deer to eat. The area is also known for milder winters and a lack of large predators, such as wolves. Another reason is light hunting pressure—with roughly 92 percent of the area in private ownership, hunters can have a hard time getting permission to hunt deer. For comparison, parts of northern Minnesota are 40 to 50 percent public land.
While some hunters prefer high deer densities because it makes hunting easier, many landowners and residents in southeastern Minnesota prefer fewer deer. A high deer population creates more risk for auto collisions and more depredation of trees and other plants, including agricultural crops. Damage caused by deer is a particular problem in apple orchards, which are common in Winona and Houston counties.
Although deer densities are no longer climbing in the southeast, thanks to increased bag limits and longer deer hunting seasons, they remain above deer density goals of 10 to 17 deer per square mile set by the DNR with input from local residents and hunters. Moreover, many hunters say they'd like to see more bucks with larger antlers rather than just lots of deer. About half of respondents to a random survey of deer hunters this past spring said they'd support more restrictive hunting regulations that might result in more mature bucks. This year, for the southeast, the DNR will implement new deer hunting regulations aimed at increasing the harvest of does while protecting yearling bucks so they can live longer and can potentially grow larger antlers. The regulations will mark a departure from current deer population management, which focuses on maintaining acceptable deer densities without regard to the age or antler size of bucks.
In 2005 Marrett Grund, DNR farmland deer research biologist, and Cornicelli designed a five-year study to test regulations that reduce deer density, with the secondary benefit of providing more mature bucks. They also wanted to develop regulations that hunters would understand and abide. They focused their study on state parks where hunters had to apply for a special permit and could be easily identified and surveyed. State parks also provided a more controlled environment because hunters had to present their deer for registration before leaving.
At St. Croix, Wild River, Great River Bluffs, and Maplewood state parks, as well as Lake Elmo Park Reserve in Washington County, hunters were allowed to harvest a buck only after tagging an antlerless deer, a regulation known as Earn-A-Buck.
At Savanna Portage, Itasca, and Forestville/Mystery Cave state parks, they tested a regulation known as an antler point restriction, where hunters were only allowed to harvest bucks with at least three or four antler points on one side, depending on the park. This regulation protects yearling bucks from harvest because most yearlings don't have enough antler points to be legal during the deer season.
Each year the hunters were asked for their opinions of their hunt, including their overall level of satisfaction and whether they planned to return to the park to hunt the next year. In addition the age, sex, and antler size of each deer harvested in the parks was recorded.
The data showed that the Earn-A-Buck regulations increased the antlerless harvest by 60 to 70 percent in the first year and slightly increased the number of mature bucks in the population.
"We know that most hunters only take one deer, even when they had to take a doe first. Given that, we ended up protecting some bucks because [hunters] just don't tend to take more than a single deer," Cornicelli says.
Many hunters said they didn't like the regulation because it forced them to harvest an antlerless deer first, Grund says.
"According to our surveys, about 40 percent of Minnesota deer hunters will never harvest an antlerless deer," he says. "Many hunters grew up in a tradition of harvesting bucks only. They'd rather go home empty-handed."
Restricting hunters to bucks with at least three or four antler points on one side was more popular, but that regulation increased the antlerless harvest by only 10 to 15 percent, Grund says. The regulation also successfully increased the number of adult bucks with large antlers. At Itasca State Park, the percentage of 4½-year-old bucks—trophy deer with large, heavy beamed antlers—increased from 4 percent of the deer population to more than 10 percent during the five-year study.
Cornicelli says antler-point restrictions work on the principle that most hunters harvest only one deer each season, no matter the bag limit. "If a hunter doesn't think they are going to get an opportunity at a mature buck, some of them will harvest a doe because they want the venison," he says.
The study showed that both regulations increased the antlerless harvest and protected bucks. Antler-point restrictions didn't increase the antlerless harvest as much as Earn-A-Buck regulations did, but the former received more support from hunters.
"Deer densities aren't that far out of goal in southeast Minnesota, and a 60 to 70 percent increase in the doe harvest isn't required," Grund says. "Antler-point restrictions are a better fit than Earn-A-Buck right now. We would consider Earn-A-Buck in situations where we need to quickly increase the antlerless deer harvest in a specific area."
The state park study also looked at the effectiveness of allowing an antlerless-only hunt for two days in October in areas where deer densities remain high. Although this hunt accounts for only 15 percent of the overall deer harvest (2,890 deer in 2009), Cornicelli says the lack of conflicts with other outdoor enthusiasts and the satisfaction of hunters who participated was clear from the beginning.
"When we looked at the data after the first year we decided to make that season operational by expanding the early antlerless area, including the southeast in 2007."
After the five-year study, Grund and Cornicelli conducted a mail survey of southeastern hunters to gauge what they want from new deer regulations. Nearly 2,000 hunters who purchased a license to hunt deer in southeastern Minnesota during the 2008 season responded.
Of the regulatory options that would result in more mature bucks, eliminating rules that allow members of the same hunting party to tag bucks for each other (a practice known as cross-tagging) garnered the most support with 50 percent. Instituting antler-point restrictions earned 47 percent support. The option of delaying firearms seasons until later in November, when the rut or deer breeding season has ended, received less than 30 percent support. Some hunters believe bucks are less wary during the rut and more vulnerable to harvest. The option of requiring hunters to harvest a doe before harvesting a buck was not part of the survey, Cornicelli says, because that measure wouldn't be necessary in the southeast.
Marty Stubstad, Bluffland Whitetail Association board member, says his group would have preferred to delay the firearms deer season until later November, when the deer breeding season was over. Still, he's supportive of regulations aimed at protecting young bucks.
"It was never part of the plan to tell people what kind of deer they could shoot," Stubstad says. "But [antler-point restrictions] seem to be the only solution to start increasing the age level of our deer."
John Ny Vang, state director of the Capital Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, isn't sure how fellow Hmong hunters might react to the new regulations. "Some of them hunt for big bucks, so they'll probably support the new regulations," he says. "Others hunt for meat, and they're not going to like having to pass up a buck because it doesn't have big antlers."
While hunters will sometimes have to pass on a yearling buck because of the new regulations, Cornicelli says there will still be ample opportunity to shoot does.
"Passing on yearling bucks is part of the compromise necessary to balance our deer population objectives against the clear interest that hunters have in seeing more mature bucks."
If antler-point restrictions successfully increase the number of mature bucks in southeastern Minnesota, some hunters worry that landowners will lease large blocks of land at high prices to hunters seeking trophy deer. Conversely, some say that successful antler-point restrictions would produce more mature bucks across the landscape, including on public land. Hunters might be less likely to purchase a lease if they have a reasonable chance at a large buck on public land.
"I'm not sure which side of that debate is right," Cornicelli says. "I don't think either argument is 100 percent correct, and we'll probably see better opportunities on public land and some increase in the number of trophy leases. We do need to keep a close eye on any issue that would further limit hunting access in the southeast."
Whatever the outcome of antler-point restrictions, Cornicelli says protecting bucks with four points or fewer on one side is a philosophical shift in deer management.
"Saying as an agency that a mature buck is more important than the yearling buck represents a significant change in deer management," he says. "At the core, we're still managing deer density in a way that has biological merit, so it's not a fundamental shift. "However, it will be a big change for hunters."