BEMIDJI, Minn. - John Williams likes to use a pendulum analogy when talking about deer populations in northwest Minnesota, and right now, the pendulum is swinging from "not enough deer" to "too many deer" in several areas, the longtime wildlife manager says.
That should translate into good hunting opportunities when Minnesota's firearms deer season opens Saturday, Nov. 4-a full six days before North Dakota's deer gun season, which opens at noon Friday, Nov. 10.
"In some places, we do have some issues with too many deer already," said Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "We're going to have to keep our finger on that. That pendulum swings pretty fast when it's in the middle of a swing like that, and I think we're there in a couple of spots."
One of those spots is Permit Area 241, Williams said, a large block of prime deer habitat that runs along U.S. Highway 10 from Detroit Lakes southeast to Staples and north to the Park Rapids area.
The permit area is one of only a handful across the state to fall under the "Intensive" management designation, where hunters can purchase tags to take as many as three deer.
"It's absolute classic deer habitat in that transition zone" from prairie to forest, Williams said.
On the grow
Another mild winter on top of the previous two mild winters largely has enabled deer populations to be at or near goal levels in most permit areas, DNR officials say-in turn moving the pendulum toward abundance.
Fawn production also was good this year, another indication of does coming through the winter in good health.
Almost without exception, deer limits in permit areas across northwest Minnesota are one level more liberal than last year, Williams said. Some permit areas moved from a designation of Lottery, which requires hunters to apply in advance to shoot an antlerless deer, to a Hunter Choice designation that allows a hunter to use one license to shoot either a buck or antlerless deer.
Other permit areas changed designations from Hunter Choice to Managed. In permit areas designated as Managed, hunters can take two deer through use of a regular license and a bonus antlerless permit. Permit areas that stayed in the Lottery designation this year may have more permits available than in previous years.
"People are expecting a good deer season, and I believe they'll get one, too," Williams said. "There are places (where) we might be in that area where we're going to have to start pushing back and looking to drop deer toward goal as opposed to raising deer toward goal."
In that context, managers will keep an eye on this year's deer season, he said.
"If we have good weather, I'm anticipating a pretty doggone good statewide harvest," Williams said. "I'm not going to stick my neck out and say how much, but I'm expecting to see a significant increase over what last year's figure was.
"And then we'll have to see how the winter goes for what we might be suggesting for the coming year after this."
DNR expects increase
In a news release, Paul Telander, DNR wildlife chief, said the department expects hunters will shoot about 200,000 whitetails by the time the state's final deer season closes Sunday, Dec. 31.
Hunters last year shot 173,213 deer between the firearm, archery and muzzleloader seasons-well below the record harvest of 290,525 in 2003, but similar to the most recent 20-year average of 205,959, Telander said.
The firearms season is by far the most popular option for Minnesota deer hunters, and hunters last year purchased 372,645 firearms deer licenses and shot 144,470 deer for a success rate of 32 percent, the DNR said. About 61 percent of those deer were antlered bucks.
Before 2000, hunters shot more than 200,000 deer only four times between the three seasons, he said.
"The high harvests in the early 2000s occurred at a time when the over-riding harvest strategy was to reduce the deer population so it wouldn't grow out of control, as had happened in certain eastern states, and to address certain environmental, economic and social concerns," Telander said in the news release. "Deer harvests in excess of 225,000 occurred only once in the 1990s.
"Going further back, the harvests in the 1970s never topped 100,000. The harvests in the 1980s were under 150,000. Today, there's growing discussion in the hunting community as to what's a reasonable harvest target, and that's a good conversation to have."
One thing's for sure: If the extended weather forecast holds, hunters in northwest Minnesota won't encounter the balmy temperatures they experienced for last year's firearms deer opener. According to Intellicast, the extended forecast in Bemidji calls for a high of 35 degrees and a 60 percent chance of light snow for Saturday's opener.
Here's a look at dates for Minnesota's firearms deer season.
• Nov. 4-19: 100 series permit areas.
• Nov. 4-12: 200 series permit areas.
• Nov. 4-12: 300 series Season A.
• Nov. 18-26: 300 series Season B.
More info: mndnr.gov.