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Blane Klemek: Deer weren't always so plentiful in Minnesota

My late grandfather, Clifford Greenwood, once told me that, when he was a young man farming near Bertha in West Central Minnesota, seeing a deer was newsworthy. In fact, just seeing a deer track was something to talk about, too.

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A white-tailed deer peeks out from brush at Morris Wetland Management District. (Flickr photo by Alex Galt/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

November is upon us, and along with it comes the onset of winter right around the corner. The season’s first frosts, which only occurred a short time ago, have set the stage for final leaf drop, plant dormancy, and soon after, ice-covered lakes and wetlands.

White-tailed deer, sometimes called “whitetails,” continue feeding in the forests and fields with little outward concern. They're nearly as content as cattle going about their lives unimpeded by deep snow and howling cold winds. Deer are busily feeding to put on extra fat reserves for the long winter ahead.

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We are not the only ones who enjoy maple syrup. This white-tailed deer is licking the sweet sap of a maple tree. (Flickr photo by Mara Koenig/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Midwest Region)

Even so, life isn't always rosy for deer, despite plenty to eat, long autumns, and mild winters. To be sure, individual deer, for example, will benefit by abundant food, prolonged autumns and short winters in spite of this season’s devastating drought.


If this winter ends up being like last winter, then most, if not all, deer will emerge from the season with fat to spare.

In some habitats throughout Minnesota where an abundance of deer exist, particularly in urban environments where deer are not necessarily hunted, deer can overeat and cause damage. Many a wooded acre suffers from over-browsing by white-tailed deer. Foresters, wildlife and resource managers, and many homeowners agree.

In some forested habitat little or no natural regeneration of certain species of trees and shrubs occur, because deer munch them to the ground before they can grow tall enough and out of a deer's reach.

Species such as white pine, red pine, jack pine, white cedar, and many other deciduous trees and shrubs, including ornamental varieties, often don't stand a chance from too many deer that specifically target these desirable young trees.

Long ago, white-tailed deer were not nearly as plentiful in Minnesota. Gray wolves and vast mature forests kept deer from becoming overly abundant. The opening of the forests by logging, settlement, and farming has created the preferred habitats sought by white-tailed deer. Today, whitetails have never been more numerous. That withstanding, seeing deer feeding in the fields or bounding through a woodland is a pleasure that many of us never grow weary of. They are beautiful and fascinating animals.

My late grandfather, Clifford Greenwood, once told me that, when he was a young man farming near Bertha in West Central Minnesota, seeing a deer was newsworthy. In fact, just seeing a deer track was something to talk about, too.

And another man I once knew, Eldor Omdahl, who farmed near Warren in northwestern Minnesota and lived until he was 101, told me that deer simply didn’t exist in that part of the state when he was a boy.

My, how times have changed.


Even in my own relatively short time here on Earth, I’ve seen marked changes in the relative abundance of white-tailed deer. While deer were always around on our dairy farm and everywhere else where I grew up west of Bertha, bagging a deer during the short deer hunting seasons that typified the times wasn’t ever a sure thing.

Indeed, bag limits and season lengths were extremely conservative and deer harvest was thus quite low.

But give white-tailed deer their due. The species’ nature is to multiply, and multiply they do. Yet with their abundance do come some problems. More and more deer every year are causing problems on roadways. Certain diseases such as chronic wasting disease, for example, are often exacerbated by activities such as too many deer, artificial feeding, and raising deer in captivity. And crop depredation by deer is also a problem in agricultural areas of the state.

Yet nature, the great equilibrium, could strike a blow this winter, possibly negatively affecting the health and survivorship of local populations of deer here in the northland and elsewhere. In the meantime, the population of the elegant white-tailed deer is doing well, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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