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Two white-tailed deer pause as they browse for food near Two Harbors. (File / News Tribune)

Numbers looking good for Minnesota deer opener

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Minnesota's deer population and hunter harvest are in a sort of "sweet spot" heading into Saturday's firearm deer hunting opener, meaning if you liked the number of deer you saw and shot during last year's season, 2011 should shape up about the same.

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And those numbers could stay the same for years to come.

That's because Minnesota's deer population, and the number of deer shot each year, have stabilized to levels the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources feels good about. Most wildlife management units are at or near the DNR's long-term goals -- even most areas in the Northeast that are down from high deer numbers a decade ago.

"We're kind of where we want to be," said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's wildlife research manager, during a teleconference with reporters Wednesday.

Even in areas where doe permits are harder to get, reflecting lower deer numbers overall, Cornicelli said no management area is far from goal.

So with roughly the same number of doe or antlerless permits available this year as last, about the same number of hunters (450,000 or so), about the same number of deer in the woods, and no forecast of extreme cold or heavy rain to keep hunters indoors, the 2011 season is shaping up to be a copy of last year.

Through Wednesday morning, license sales were about the same as last year, and archery hunters have taken nearly the same number of deer as last year (up 300) -- factors that also point to a 2011 season close to 2010's.

After deer populations skyrocketed across much of the state a decade ago, the DNR used public and hunter input, social tolerance and outside factors -- such as forestry concerns, danger to motorists and the effect of deer on moose populations -- to justify a broad reduction in deer numbers, up to 25 percent in some areas.

Deer numbers had soared to more than 1.3 million statewide, so doe permits were doled out freely, and hunters killed up to 290,000 deer in 2003 and 2004.

Those high harvests worked to lower deer numbers, and most hunters seemed to understand the DNR's assessment that deer numbers had been too high.

Now, deer numbers have dropped to about 1 million statewide, and the DNR expects hunters to shoot about 175,000 deer this month. Archery and muzzleloader hunters will take another 30,000 deer through December.

"That's about our sweet spot for deer harvest," Cornicelli said, adding that the state's social capacity for deer, for many reasons, is lower than the biological capacity.

Cornicelli concedes some hunters may have "buyer's remorse" over the DNR deer reduction effort after seeing and shooting fewer deer in recent years.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said many of his members agree the statewide harvest is at a reasonable level. But he said hunters in some areas -- especially in southwestern and Northeastern corners of the state -- still wonder why they aren't seeing more deer. Some say the DNR's doe permit system in some "intensive harvest management areas" is allowing too many deer to be shot and that the DNR's deer population goals in some units may be too low.

"I think there's general agreement that we don't need deer numbers like we had back in the heyday, those highest-harvest years," Johnson said. "But there's also a sense in some areas that they want to see more deer than they have now."

On-line registration popular

The DNR maintains a network of 700 in-person registration stations at stores and shops statewide, but they may become a relic soon.

Last year, the first year it was offered, about half of all Minnesota firearms deer hunters registered their deer by telephone or Internet. So far this autumn, nearly two-thirds of archery hunters have registered their deer that way, and Cornicelli expects electronic registration to top 60 percent for firearms hunters this year.

The process takes about 30 seconds, Cornicelli said. Call (888) 706-6367 or go to www.mndnr.gov, click on deer hunting and then click on mandatory deer registration. Either way, you need to keep your confirmation number to prove you legally registered your deer.

Hunters getting older

The average age of a Minnesota deer hunter is about 42 and rising, DNR officials noted Wednesday, which is why they are pushing efforts for current hunters to mentor new hunters. About 95 percent of all licensed hunters are men, so the DNR notes that adding more women hunters seems an obvious route.

While Minnesota hunter numbers have remained stable as other states have seen marked declines, Cornicelli said the DNR is concerned a decline is imminent here as well.

"Our problem is, it's the same people hunting (every year) and getting older... so at some point in time we're going to see a drop-off as well," he said.

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