A melancholy refrain heard often in recent years describes a decline in Minnesota hunting participation. It’s true. Our state — a state that has historically had one of the nation’s strongest hunting traditions — is losing ground.

The decline is most notable among duck hunters, but the overall number of small game hunting licenses sold — licenses needed to hunt ruffed grouse, pheasants, squirrels and rabbits, ducks and geese — has been trending downward for the last 20 years. Results of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hunter survey released in October of this year found participation in small game hunting to be the lowest since the DNR began tracking this statistic in 1969.

All of which makes the news of high deer hunting license sales a good-news exception to that downward trend. License sales prior to opening weekend of the general firearms deer season are a pretty good indicator of hunter interest, and a fair predictor of where total license sales will end up for a given season.

This year’s pre-season total was almost 16 percent higher than license sales at the same point last year, suggesting that 2019 will stack up well for deer hunt participation. These pre-season numbers include the many licenses sold for the four-day October statewide youth deer hunt; but license tallies indicate that regular pre-season license sales were slightly above last year’s number, even without the youth hunt.

Deer hunting participation seems so far not to have been dampened by the chronic wasting disease (CWD) revelations of the past year, or the expanded zones where all deer harvested must be checked for this fatal-to-deer disease.

These rules are in place to determine the extent to which CWD is making inroads into the state’s wild deer population; all evidence points to the disease being introduced and spread within the state through captive deer and elk farms. The latest such discovery, far from the core CWD zone in Southeast Minnesota, was in Central Minnesota’s Crow Wing County, where a herd of captive deer were recently “put down” in an effort to contain the disease’s spread.

The youth deer hunt this year was expanded to four days, during which youth age 13 to 17 could hunt deer with a non-hunting adult. Roughly 21,000 youth deer licenses were sold, and more than 5,000 connected; for many, it was their first whitetail ever. The October hunt coincided with the Thursday-Friday school closure for Minnesota Education Association (MEA) meetings.

Some have criticized the youth hunt, branding it as unduly disruptive of normal deer behavior so close to the general firearms opener. Some say these youth should be introduced and indoctrinated into the deer hunting tradition through the normal deer hunt or deer camp experience. On the other hand, supporters cite the far less competitive environment during the early youth hunt, and the prospect of more intense mentoring when adults are focused on a youth’s training and hunting experience. As with so many things, there are two sides to this story.

The positive license sales figures align with anecdotal evidence I’ve been encountering, reinforcing the special appeal of deer hunting for many young people. I have the privilege of working with a number of twenty-somethings, both young men and young women. Their enthusiasm for the upcoming deer hunt was palpable as the final days leading up to the general firearms opener ticked by.

One showed me a smart-phone photo of a bragging-worthy buck his dad had just harvested with bow and arrow. Another gave me a guided tour via aerial photos of his family’s deer hunting land. A young woman let it be known that she not only has bagged deer, but field dresses and helps with the butchering. One young man was keeping an anxious eye on the weather, because Saturday morning would be the first on a deer stand for his wife, and he hoped it would be both tolerable and successful.

So far — knock on wood — deer hunting in our state seems to be bucking the trend of reduced participation. The previously-described decline in small game hunting has led to a loss in license revenues needed for wildlife management efforts; by DNR estimate, nearly $1 million less in annual revenues since the 1990s. There are losses experienced by private businesses, too, businesses that provide lodging, food, fuel and the firearms and gear that are a part of any hunting pursuit. Not least, with declining participation comes a loss of political clout, loss of the muscle needed to make senators and representatives consider wildlife and other natural resource values when laws are made.

Fortunately, deer hunters still seem to have those economic and political muscles to flex.