Minnesota offers a broad array of opportunities to hunt big and small game, but when it comes to popularity, nothing tops the deer season. Each fall, as many as a half-million camouflage- or blaze-orange-clad hunters head afield, hoping for the opportunity to harvest a white-tailed deer while renewing bonds among family and friends.

It isn't only hunters who think about deer, which live in all of Minnesota's 87 counties. Farmers, gardeners, and forest managers wince when they see deer eating crops, tree buds, or stored forage. Wildlife enthusiasts marvel as they watch deer leap effortlessly over fences, or as they witness a mother deer tend to her young. And motorists may curse the animals when they cross the road at the wrong time and cause accidents.

As a result, managing deer is a complex process that involves many Minnesotans who often have widely divergent views. Even among hunters, everything from the proper number of deer to specifics of the hunting season is up for debate. It's up to Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers to balance the social interests of the public with the need for a biologically and ecologically sound deer population. Hunting seasons are the primary tool at these managers' disposal. Setting those seasons is an annual, in-depth exercise, and planning for the next one begins the moment one season ends. This year, in addition to the regular season-setting process, the DNR also has been formulating the state's first strategic, long-term deer management plan that deals with whitetails at the statewide level. It's set for completion in early 2018.

The deer plan enlists the public to help answer questions such as, "What's our broad vision for deer? What do we need to do to enhance deer and deer management?" says Adam Murkowski, DNR big game program leader. "With that in mind, the deer plan is an opportunity to look at the big picture of all things that affect deer populations, beyond just specific regulations."

Earlier this year, the DNR collected citizens' input on deer and deer management at a dozen public meetings throughout the state and via email, mail, and an online questionnaire. All state residents were encouraged to comment, though people who hunt deer were especially involved. Many of them shared their opinions on specific hunting regulations, Murkowski says, even though this wasn't the stated focus of meetings. Another common theme was the necessity of good deer habitat.

About 500 people attended a meeting and another 1,400 commented online. This input will be considered as the DNR formulates the plan, which is eagerly anticipated by agency wildlife managers and participants alike. In addition to the public comments, a Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee that meets monthly will assist the DNR in developing and launching the plan. The advisory committee includes 19 people from around the state who have an interest in deer and deer management, including seven citizens as well as representatives from agriculture, conservation, forestry, hunting, and land-management organizations.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the 20,000-member Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and a member of the advisory committee, hopes the plan will be an important aspect of deer management. "It's got to establish a sound foundation for decision making that's transparent and that makes information easily available—not just for the average hunter, but for anybody who is interested in how the DNR makes decisions about deer management."

In the past 14 years, the annual deer harvest in Minnesota has fluctuated between a high of 290,525 in 2003 and a low of 139,442 in 2014. Following mild winters and more restrictive hunting regulations, the annual harvest has increased in each of the past two years. Last season, Minnesota hunters shot 173,213 deer. Managing that harvest—and that of does, in particular, since they reproduce and thus drive the population—is far more involved than simply turning loose hunters into the state's fields and woods. It's a process that begins in area wildlife offices across the state while there's still snow on the ground and that ends at DNR headquarters in St. Paul during mosquito season.

Bellwether Hunters

Hunters who've spent time in the field are a key source of information about deer herds in local areas. They routinely provide their observations to area wildlife managers, who have a responsibility for staying in tune with what's going on in their management areas, says John Williams, DNR regional wildlife manager in Bemidji. They begin planning for the next season shortly after the new year. When he was an area wildlife manager in Thief River Falls, Williams would ask "some hunters I'd call my bellwether hunters" about their hunting experiences and observations, including the number of deer they saw and the condition of those deer.

Bill Schuna, area wildlife manager in Slayton in southwestern Minnesota, maintains open lines of communication with hunters. "We visit with hunters we know; they stop in the office regularly," he says. "I'm always asking people how they felt about the deer season and what they saw."

During the hunting season, area managers also keep track of the number of deer registered—data that are more readily available thanks to the state's electronic licensing system—and continually monitor the severity of the winter and other local factors that influence deer populations.

Along the way, wildlife managers begin to think about what the upcoming season might look like, based on their own observations as well as their conversations with hunters and other residents including farmers. They consider not just how many deer each management area can hold, but also potential challenges and opportunities. "Out here in the farmland zone, there's not an infinite population of deer, and there are not infinite hiding places either, so it's a very vulnerable population," Schuna says. "There's a biological carrying capacity for deer, but also a social carrying capacity."

Schuna knows if there are too many deer and not enough habitat—a growing concern as a result of loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres—a severe winter could cause animals to gather in herds and start eating food silage piles and stacks of hay, which would generate calls from farmers about nuisance deer.

Data Meets Reality

By late winter and early spring, others in the DNR begin to get involved in the planning process for the next deer season. Andrew Norton, DNR deer project leader at the Farmland Wildlife Population and Research Group office in Madelia, collects statewide harvest data in January and February. Through the month of March, he also gathers data for the winter severity index, a metric that provides clues about overwinter deer survival. Wildlife managers keep track of the WSI throughout the winter, adding one point for each day the air temperature is at or below 0 degrees, and another point for each day the snow depth is 15 inches or greater. If the total is less than 100, the winter is considered mild. More than 180 and it's considered severe.

On April 1, Norton begins running population models for all deer permit areas in the state. These models account for deer added to and removed from the population, and they estimate the late-winter deer population in each permit area. Winter helicopter surveys are sometimes used to evaluate population models. Norton then compares models to deer population goals for each of the state's permit areas. Those goals have been established and updated based in part on public input from local hunters and residents.

At that point, Norton makes a recommendation for a season structure in each permit area. Where the goal is to increase deer numbers, he might protect the doe population by recommending a classification that allows hunters to harvest only bucks, or one that requires hunters to apply in a lottery for a limited number of antlerless permits. If the goal is to hold a population stable, he might lean toward a hunter choice regulation, which allows hunters to kill either a buck or a doe. Other more aggressive management strategies include allowing hunters to kill up to two deer in "managed" permit areas or up to three deer in "intensive" permit areas. In past seasons hunters in intensive permit areas could harvest up to five deer. In areas with particularly high populations, Norton might also recommend an early firearms season in October during which hunters can target only antlerless deer.

In early May, Norton sits down with all of the state's area wildlife managers and offers his recommendations for each of the permit areas for which they're responsible. They often agree with his recommendations. But not always. This is where the information-sharing of area managers and the public comes into play. In his modeling, for example, Norton uses harvest data from the previous season. Yet there are reasons—poor weather during the hunting season, for example—why area managers may believe the previous season's harvest isn't reflective of the local deer population. The deer population model also incorporates WSI data. The WSI number could indicate a mild winter, but what if there was a crust on the snow that gave predators such as wolves an edge over deer? Area managers are in a position to point that out.

"There can be some subjectivity," Norton says. "We don't just feed numbers into a mysterious machine, have it spit out answers, and then stick to them no matter what."

The Season Is Set

Following the meeting between Norton and area managers, regional wildlife managers receive season recommendations. Williams figures 90 percent of the time or more the area manager recommendations are in line with Norton's recommendations. But in instances when the two don't agree, it's up to the regional manager to decide which recommendation to forward on to wildlife officials in St. Paul. In making that call, Dave Trauba, DNR regional wildlife manager in New Ulm, and Williams say it's common for them to have discussions with both the area manager and research staff to better understand how they arrived at their conclusions. Williams puts "a lot of credence" in the recommendations of area managers. Trauba does, too, but says he'll often err on the cautious side. "Either way, there's a lot of review and a lot of back and forth," he says.

Once regional managers' recommendations are in, DNR wildlife staff members in St. Paul review them. "Our top priority is to make science-based decisions with the best information we have available to us, and that's what guides management decisions," Murkowski says. "Deer management is an adaptive process, and it's important we keep an open mind about what we can do to ensure that our management strategies are maintaining a healthy and robust deer population."

Regulations generally are finalized by early summer, giving hunters plenty of time to plan what, for many of them, is one of the best times of the year.