John Williams often compares deer populations to a pendulum that's always swinging from one side to the other of the elusive happy medium. And this year, the longtime wildlife manager says, hunters in many northwest Minnesota deer permit areas will find the pendulum swinging back toward the positive.
Minnesota's firearms deer season opens Saturday, Nov. 5.
"We're all excited about this season," Williams, regional wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said. "This is probably the season that puts us on track with what most people would consider to be a more normal season."
Conservative remains the buzzword in deer management, Williams said, but in the DNR's Northwest Region, a large swath that extends south to the Glenwood and Alexandria, Minn., areas, hunters in many deer permit areas this year have the option of shooting either a buck or a doe.
A few permit areas near Park Rapids and Fergus Falls, Minn., even are designated as "managed," allowing hunters to take two deer if they buy an additional tag, Williams said.
"I think for a lot of the region, we'd probably want to see that momentum go toward a bit higher deer population, but in some of those permit areas, we are very cautious about wanting to see it move up much more," he said.
Again, it's that pendulum thing-an effort to keep deer populations from swinging too far into the overabundant category.
"Our managers in some of those areas are a bit trepidatious, inasmuch as I think one more winter that's mild, and we're going to be pushing the other side of the ledger, and I think that has some people concerned," Williams said. "We've already had some fairly egregious (depredation) complaints come out of some of those permit areas.
"It's a concern to balance that side of the coin. That's the pendulum we keep talking about. It's never motionless."
Last year, the DNR sold more than 448,000 firearms deer licenses, and hunters registered 132,697 deer, a success rate of 29.6 percent. The record harvest occurred in 2003, when more than half a million licenses were sold, and hunters registered 257,860 deer.
It's a safe bet this year's harvest will exceed last year's tally, but deer populations that accommodated the number of whitetails shot in the early to mid 2000s probably won't happen again anytime soon.
Deer populations in many parts of the state arguably were too high during those days, but the continued loss of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program likely will prevent a recurrence of those kinds of numbers, Williams said. Minnesota had more than 1.7 million acres enrolled in CRP in 2003, compared with about 1.15 acres last year, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show.
The recent comeback in deer numbers is the result of consecutive mild winters and conservative harvest strategies, Williams said. The loss of CRP, he says, has been a "game changer."
"The amount of CRP we had basically 10 years ago was providing improved habitat in the more agricultural areas of the region," Williams said. "And when crop prices got high enough and CRP contracts expired, to that degree there's not the grass that was out there.
"With that change, our ability, habitat-wise, to hold the same number of deer is diminished. To what degree, I can't say."
Despite the long-term challenges, hunters overall will encounter some of the best opportunities to shoot a deer they've had in quite some time. That's a positive change from a few years ago, when the DNR held listening sessions across the state for deer hunters to weigh in with their concerns, Williams said.
"The thing that struck me the most was grandparents talking about their grandkids and trying to get the grandkids interested in hunting," Williams said. "Not seeing deer was a factor that just didn't keep the kids interested."
Minnesota's firearms deer season continues through Nov. 13 in most of Minnesota and through Nov. 20 in the "100 series" permit areas of northern and northeast Minnesota.