On Saturday, thousands of hunters will head into field and wood in hopes filling out their tags for the firearms deer hunting season opener.
And DNR officials are expecting a good year across the state.
Gary Drotts, DNR wildlife manager for Crow Wing, Aitkin and the southern two-thirds of Cass County, said he expects harvest numbers in his area to match 2011, when 14,513 deer were taken.
“I would be surprised if we get over let’s say 16,000. It’s possible but I’m pretty comfortable in the 14,000-16,000 range,” Drotts said. “I’d be disappointed if it were under 14,000.”
Minnesota’s deer harvest has varied widely over the past half-century. In a historical context, too many deer were taken during the 1960s, forcing the closure of the deer season in 1971 and a rebuilding of the deer herd through the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The highest deer harvest occurred in 2003 when 270,000 deer were taken — more than 23,000 in the Brainerd area — as part of an effort to reduce the deer herd. Today, the DNR manages the deer population based on goals established with public input. Last year, Minnesota’s nearly 500,000 deer hunters harvested 192,300 deer.
What will help the hunt this year was the mild winter of 2011-2012.
“Minnesota’s deer population is up from last year, in part, because of the mild winter,” said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s wildlife research manager, in a news release. “Mild winters result in more survival of adults, more fawns being born, and more deer in the state’s fields and forests the following hunting season.” He estimated the deer population at about 1 million.
What also will be interesting, Drotts said, is the weather for this year’s opener, which falls on the earliest day possible. The forecast calls for mild temperatures in the low 40s as well as a slight chance of rain and snow. That’s a formula that Drotts likes.
“I’ve always been a fan of when we have earlier openers and decent weather. I’m a fan of shooting deer when it’s brown rather than when’s white,” with snow, Drotts said. His reasoning — snow changes deer habits and pushes them off fields and into the woods.
“I know the old-timers like snow for tracking, but to me as a professional and an avid hunter myself I’d just as soon have opening weekend be nice.”
Rain also doesn’t dampen Drotts’ hunting spirits, as he said deer move best in calm and drizzly weather.
“That would be awesome,” Drotts said. “These conditions could make for a nice year. We had a windy year last year, and some have said the harvest was down because of that.”
Drotts said he wouldn’t be surprised to see bucks with larger racks being taken this year and the spikes and fork-horns survived last season’s mild winter.
There are few changes for this year’s hunt. Drotts noted the biggest changes will be for areas 171 and 172 (Pine River, Hackensack, Longville, Floodwood, Hill City areas), which went from hunter’s choice to lottery; and area 249 (southern Crow Wing, northern Morrison counties), which went from managed to hunter’s choice.
Areas 171 and 172 went to a lottery after a series of meeting with hunters, Drotts said.
“There’s two things going on, the harvest rates are down and it’s wolf country. In order to raise the population up we need to save a few antlerless deer for a couple of years to have a bigger herd to breed,” Drotts said. “We had to clamp back.”
As for the wolf hunt, which is making its debut in Minnesota this year and coincides with the start of the rifle deer hunt, Drotts said it’s hard to predict how much success there will be.
“It’s going to be hit and miss, but we fully expect to have some wolves taken here,” Drotts said. “I’d be disappointed if we have zero. We should have a few to a handful.”
In addition to calling to register a wolf within 24 hours after it’s harvested, hunters will have to bring their wolves to the DNR on Tuesday or Nov. 13 to allow officials to record size, sex, weight and other aspects of the animal.
“We’re doing our due diligence,” Drotts said.
As with every year, Drotts said the No. 1 thing he and other DNR officials stress is being safe while hunting. The No. 2 thing, he said, would be to enjoy yourself.
“Have fun taking your kids hunting, your parents, sons, daughters, whomever,” Drotts said. “It’s only an added benefit to harvest a critter.”
MATT ERICKSON, night editor, may be reached at 855-5857 or email@example.com.