DULUTH — What a difference a few mild winters and a lot more doe permits can make.
Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area deer meetings, held at wildlife offices across the state in recent weeks, attracted surprisingly few hunters — some meetings went unattended and the most heavily attended attracted just 14 people.
Across northeastern Minnesota, Tower and Grand Rapids attracted eight people each with only five in Two Harbors and just two in International Falls. And not a one of them brought pitchforks and torches.
"I only had one person show up. He was an interesting guy, but I was hoping for more participation,'' said Chris Balzer, Cloquet-area wildlife manager for the DNR. "I'm hoping that people did know about it and decided they didn't need to come. It was in (the News Tribune) and the Cloquet paper... So I hope this means they're pretty satisfied with the deer situation right now."
That situation, Balzer and other wildlife managers said, is that deer numbers are "just about at goal," for the number of deer the DNR and others say is right for the local landscape. Hunters are mostly satisfied with the number of deer they are seeing and farmers and gardeners aren't too angry over too many deer in their crops, Balzer noted.
Having deer populations at or above goal also means antlerless or doe permits are easier to get — in Balzer's area most hunters didn't even have to apply for a permit, they can chose to take a doe or a buck this year. Across the entire region only one permit area — southeast of International Falls — has no antlerless permits available, meaning deer numbers are still below goal there. In some areas bonus permits are available because deer are above goal.
Nancy Hansen, Two Harbors area wildlife manager, said five people showed up for their meeting last month. Hansen said the DNR cut back antlerless permits in the most northeastern permit area in the state, in Cook County, as deer numbers there have been slower to rebound — even though it's an area where efforts are underway to keep deer numbers stable to help moose recover.
"We're not trying to eliminate deer, we're just trying to keep their densities low to prevent parasite transfer to moose,'' Hansen said. Even in the area where doe permits have been reduced the DNR is offering special either-sex (hunter's choice) hunts in state parks in that part of the North Shore to reduce the effects of deer browsing in those local areas, she said.
In Tower, wildlife manager Tom Rusch said deer numbers have "absolutely'' recovered from the back-to-back hard winters of 2013-2014 and most hunters in his area seem to acknowledge that. Adult deer not only survived recent winters but does are healthy enough to produce twin fawns, causing rapid population growth over just a few years.
"If hunters are seeing lots of fawns they get encouraged,'' Rusch said.
Grand Rapids Area Wildlife Manager Mark Spoden said he had a variety of questions about doe permits. Comments ranged from too few deer in the Chippewa National Forest part of his area — with hunters glad the state cut back doe permits some there — to an overabundance of deer and not enough doe permits in the privately held agricultural parts of the area.
"We got some questions on crossbows... And some on wolves. They want to see the state get wolf control back so there can be some control,'' Spoden said. "That can't happen until the animal is removed from federal protections, either by Congress or federal court."
Both Minnesota and Wisconsin archery deer seasons start Saturday.
Changes in Duluth bow hunt
Hunters in Duluth's city bowhunt have two rule changes this year. The city hunt will no longer carry a "metro" designation, which, under Minnesota DNR rules, allowed a hunter to shoot an unlimited number of antlerless deer. Beginning with this fall's hunt, hunters in the city will be permitted to take up to three antlerless deer.
The second change will end the hunt's "earn-a-buck" on Thanksgiving Day each year rather than on Dec. 1. Under the "earn-a-buck" requirement, city hunters are required to shoot an antlerless deer before taking a buck in the hunt.
The changes were announced earlier this year by city officials after consulting with the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, which administers the hunt for the city.
City officials said the city's deer population had been dramatically reduced thanks to the 13-year-old urban hunting program, adding they didn't want to give the impression they were trying to eradicate whitetails within the city limits. Hunters have taken a total of 6,143 deer, over those 13 seasons by the association's own tally.
The assessment that the city holds fewer deer now thanks to bowhunters efforts was echoed by DNR wildlife managers who said they now receive far fewer complaints from Duluth residents and gardeners about deer eating flowers, trees and shrubs.
In 2017, for the third year in a row, hunters in the city hunt shot an average of just under one deer per hunter. A total of 296 hunters were registered for last fall's hunt and they killed a total of 290 deer. That's on par with recent years but less than half the roughly 600 per year taken in the early years of the hunt.
Only archers with special permits may hunt in the city limits. Applications for the Duluth city bowhunt are accepted through June 30 each summer, and entrants must qualify in a skills test. For more information go to bowhuntersalliance.org.