Go to a public meeting hosted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on deer and the topic is going to get brought up by somebody in the room.
It is centered around the timing of the Minnesota firearms season for whitetails. Why is it so early? Why can’t we move it back? Not surprisingly, it’s often brought up by someone who archery hunts and will receive pushback from someone in the gun-hunting community.
In full disclosure, I love bow hunting, and I brought this subject up during a small-group discussion at a Jan. 22 public meeting in Alexandria on deer population goals. I suggested making the annual opener the second Saturday of November each year instead of the more typical first Saturday in November. I picked that specific date because it should be obtainable. Moving the opener much further back into November seems unrealistic with the early opener so ingrained as part of the Minnesota firearms hunting tradition.
My suggestion was met by one person who represented both the hunting and farming community with a familiar response - “You’ll never get gun hunters to go along with that.”
I have thought about that statement a lot in recent weeks, and I have wondered if he’s right. If he is, why is that the case? I think it is possible that moving the firearms season back could lead to some benefits for gun hunters and maybe the overall balance of the deer herd, while helping the DNR more effectively manage toward population goals.
During that January meeting, DNR big-game program leader Barb Keller mentioned how hunter harvest of deer is the DNR’s primary way of managing the population. Total deer kills in the state were down in 2018 from 2017 and reached even lower numbers in the 2019 season. That’s despite plenty of three-deer permit areas and unlimited anterless areas within some CWD zones.
So why has harvest dropped? It’s likely a number of factors. Some will point to a lower number of hunters, and maybe that does have some effect.
Regular firearms license sales for residents did drop from 368,407 in 2017 to 360,873 in 2018. But a look at the overall gun license sales across all avenues, including bonus permits and youth licenses, shows that total licenses sold grew to 548,430 in 2018, compared to 533,418 the year before. Deer hunting is a priority for a lot of Minnesotans.
Another popular theory is that hunters simply won’t shoot does. That’s certainly true for some. Antlers seem to be as important as ever, and there are cases where hunters pass on does from archery to regular firearms to muzzleloader seasons so they always have a tag to use. Then they end up with that tag in their pocket.
There are parts of the state where doe harvest should be a point of emphasis. We live in one of those regions around much of Alexandria.
It’s clear that is the message the DNR is hearing and seeing from enough people. The DNR’s deer-population goals it recommended last week was to reduce deer numbers by 50% over the next 10 years in local permit areas 213, 214, 215, 276 and 277.
This area of the state has such a diverse mixture of habitat, and crop land up against security cover has a lot to do with the deer’s ability to thrive.
Crops offer these deer a vital food source. They also offer them a safe haven from gun hunters once pressure increases. Standing corn was everywhere on my drive from Alexandria to Eagle Bend on my late-season hunts this past season as farmers have battled wet conditions in recent years during planting and harvest seasons.
Many farmers at the Jan. 22 meeting in Alexandria, most of whom also hunt, were pushing for different regulations to help lower deer numbers. Earn-a-buck licenses and creating buck quotas were brought up. Keller mentioned to me last week that an early antlerless-only season could be used to manage numbers and try to get the buck-to-doe ratios more in balance.
All of these might be on the horizon if hunter attitudes toward doe harvest don’t shift. I don’t know that any regulation change is going to have a huge effect on lowering numbers if deer have hundreds of acres of corn to hide in once shots start flying during a gun season.
I have hunted river bottoms in Minnesota farm country for 25 years, and the last 10 years or so have been a different experience. River systems that I could wade across in boots during the fall now require a boat to paddle over. Nearly every year, the question is there as to whether the corn will be out by opener.
Minnesota has warmed by 2.9 degrees between 1895 and 2017. We’re also getting wetter. According to the DNR’s climate page, each of the top 10 combined warmest and wettest years on record occurred between 1998 and 2017.
Heavy rain events are more common now in Minnesota than any time on record. Conditions vary from year to year, but it is predicted that these trends will continue through the 21st century.
Is a later harvest date of crops in Minnesota’s farm country the new norm? If so, wouldn’t many hunters and the DNR tasked with managing deer populations potentially benefit from a little later firearms season? Maybe a few more young bucks might survive too if the season does not fall right in the middle of the primary seeking stage of the rut each fall.
Hundreds of acres of corn were taken out around the river bottom I hunt in southwestern Minnesota this past fall between the first and second Saturday of November. Farmers can work fast when the conditions cooperate. A week or two has potential to make a difference.
Maybe it is time to have a serious conversation about how moving the firearms season back in Minnesota could have overall benefits instead of thinking of this as an us-against-them scenario between archers and gun hunters.