DULUTH - Although some deer hunting seasons are continuing in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, this year's primary firearms seasons are history in both states. Preliminary harvest results from both states have most hunters feeling more positive than in recent years, especially so in Wisconsin.
"It's starting to be fun again," said Al Horvath of Superior, Wis., who is co-chair of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress Deer and Elk Committee. "People say things are on the upswing."
Harvests were up from last year in both Douglas and Bayfield counties, according to the preliminary figures from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The buck harvest was up 12.7 percent across the northern forest zone, and the antlerless harvest was up 70 percent, according to the DNR.
Wisconsin's statewide gun deer harvest, according to preliminary figures, was 195,738, similar to last year's harvest of 197,262, according to the DNR.
The harvest in Northeastern Minnesota was up 36 percent over last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but the buck harvest remained about even. Most of the increase in registrations was due to an increase in the number of antlerless deer taken.
"I don't think it's a sign that the herd is flourishing or coming back big," said Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "The reliable measure of the population is the buck harvest, and that was basically flat."
This fall's seasons followed a couple of mild winters, which have allowed the deer herd to grow gradually in both states. On both sides of the border, DNR officials offered more antlerless permits after some recent bucks-only hunts.
Minnesota regular firearms hunters registered 161,057 deer statewide in the season that opened Nov. 4 statewide and continued through Nov. 19 in Northeastern Minnesota (Zone 1). That statewide harvest was up 16 percent from last year.
While registrations were up in in Minnesota and about even with last year in Wisconsin, they remain far below the peak years of the early 2000s, when Wisconsin hunters shot 525,000 deer in 2000 and Minnesota hunters shot more than 275,000 deer in 2003.
"It's just that the numbers, overall, are pretty small," Engwall said of Minnesota's harvest. "It's been a number of years since the harvest was over 200,000."
Weather a factor?
Minnesota's firearms season began with snow and rain, then turned very cold during the first week. Hunter effort likely suffered as a result, said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager at Tower.
Most hunters reported seeing plenty of small bucks and does but few large bucks. That's likely due to losses suffered in a series of harsh winters before the recent mild ones, DNR wildlife officials say. But hunters took advantage of increased numbers of antlerless deer permits available this year.
"Most of the increase (in harvest) was due to the antlerless harvest," said Dave Olfelt, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids.
"If I were to look into my crystal ball, I'd say the southwestern part of our work area (Zone 1), in the ag transition area, if we don't have a severe winter, we'll probably be increasing opportunity next year," Olfelt said. "But in this area up by Grand Rapids, such as permit area 169, we'll have to be watching those more carefully. We'll look at what the harvest was this year and see how we can continue growing the herd."
MDHA's Engwall and some others believe the DNR offered more antlerless permits than it should have in some permit areas in Northeastern Minnesota, especially in area 169.
Moose zone deer harvest
Minnesota DNR wildlife managers achieved the state's goal of controlling the growth of the deer herd in five permit areas across far Northeastern Minnesota, the primary moose range. Deer carry a parasite, the brainworm, that can be fatal to moose. With the decline of the state's moose population since 2006, wildlife managers are trying to control - not necessarily reduce - deer numbers in the moose zone.
Antlerless deer harvest was up 168 percent in six permit areas just outside the moose zone, Rusch said, and was up 231 percent in the five permit areas in the moose zone.
"That's what we said from the beginning," Rusch said. "We wanted to allow for growth of the herd outside the moose range. And in the moose range, we were more liberal with our antlerless permits, and our harvest reflects that."
While the antlerless deer harvest did increase dramatically inside the moose zone on a percentage basis, the actual number of antlerless deer taken was 1,023.
"That's a thousand deer from Crane Lake to Two Harbors to Grand Marais - a big area," Rusch said. "We need to keep in context how many deer that is."
"The gun deer season was maybe a little below what we figured it would be, but when you add in the archery and muzzleloader and the late-season hunt, I think we'll land pretty close to where we thought we'd be," said Greg Kessler, Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist at Brule.
Many hunters may have passed up the smaller bucks they saw, he said.
"Most hunters saw plenty of deer - antlerless and younger bucks, lots of spikes and forks," Kessler said. "We've had such good deer hunting in the past that a lot of hunters aren't interested in shooting small bucks."
"In Bayfield County, we had such an uptick in the deer herd," said Pat Kukull of Superior Shooters Supply, who hunts near Ino. "There were some very nice bucks taken there."
The Wisconsin gun season started earlier in November this year than it often does, and that may have been an advantage to hunters, she said.
"We definitely caught the rut (peak of mating season) this year," Kukull said. "That's rare for us. (Bucks) do become rather stupid then, that's for sure."
"I think the consensus is that people are happy with the number of deer they're seeing," said Horvath, who chairs the Douglas County Deer Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the DNR. "Our kill was up in the county... People are seeing a lot of small bucks and does and fawns. It's a good sign for herd building. I think folks are a little more relaxed about the population."
A statewide, four-day antlerless deer hunt in Wisconsin ends today. Wisconsin's muzzleloader deer season ended Wednesday.
Archery seasons continue through Dec. 31 in Minnesota and through Jan. 7 in Wisconsin.