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Deer hunt is definitely hit and miss

Wolves and winters.

Those are the theories being tossed around related to a Minnesota firearms deer season that data show, and most hunters say, lacked the robust deer populations of yesteryear.

"I've got more wolves on my cameras than deer," said Trish King, 68, who hunts on 60 acres along Spring Lake Road in Cloquet. "That's a pretty good indication. They've all got collars on, all got tags on. And there's not a darn thing you can do."

On Nov. 14, King harvested a 3-point buck - the only deer she saw short of the flash of another retreating white tail. Over the years, she's shot a pair of 200-pound monster bucks, and several other mature bucks on her property.

"The way deer are nowadays, you have to shoot what you see," she said.

Ryan Swanson, 50, of Carlton shot a 10-point buck on Nov. 10 as it walked after one doe, then another in the oak forests of Blackhoof Township.

"He got through thick brush and I shot him while he was walking," Swanson said. "He dropped right away. ... I was nervous. I didn't think I was going to get a shot off."

Beyond that, nobody else in his party got a deer. His cousins, hunting a mile away, didn't get any.

"Overall, out of the people I know there aren't a lot that got deer," Swanson said. "There's talk around the hunters that the deer herd is down, and people have different theories. Is it wolves? Obviously, we had a lot of snow last winter, maybe that was part of it?"

To better understand the dwindling herd, the Pine Knot examined preliminary deer harvest numbers from 2023 and spoke with Chris Balzer, an area wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources who works out of Cloquet.

"I'm definitely worried," Balzer said. "I'm not only a manager, but a passionate deer hunter myself and understand those traditions myself, and when I hear stories about not getting people to come out, or people going south and out of state ... those are sad stories, and I always worry about hunting, as tough as it is recruiting youth hunters and those kids staying interested."

Balzer's focus is on hunting zones covered by Carlton and Pine counties and south St. Louis County up to Cotton. He said the farther north in the territory, the worse the results got.

"There seems to be more satisfied hunters down in Carlton and Pine counties," Balzer said, positing better habitat with the area's mixture of agricultural land and oak forests.

"But they're still below goal," he added.

The statewide preliminary total harvest of 128,990 is down from last year's 137,034. Ten years ago, there were 145,499 deer harvested in the state. Twenty years ago, that number hit its most recent peak at around 250,000.

South of Cloquet, in zones 156 and 183, the totals continued to decline. In zone 156, on the west side of Interstate 35, there were 1,246 deer harvested compared to 3,064 in 2013. In zone 183, located on the east side of I-35, there were 1,121 deer taken compared to 1,863 ten years ago.

According to data provided by the DNR's regional information director Cheri Zeppelin, based in Grand Rapids, "eight of our last 10 winters have fallen into the severe winter category."

Severe winters make weakened deer more susceptible to wolf predation - both from a food/energy standpoint and the navigation/snowpack standpoint, she explained.

"With wolves still federally listed on the endangered species list, a wolf hunting season is not an option in Minnesota," she said.

Most people would suspect fawns are the most vulnerable to a severe winter.

"Those same people may not realize that adult breeding bucks are the next most vulnerable group, because they are going into winter having spent much of their fall energy reserve focused on breeding instead of eating," Zeppelin said. "For hunters in bucks-only areas, this could be a factor."

Balzer said he hoped a milder El Niño winter would help the deer population rebound some. In his role with the DNR, it's his job to recommend what type of season each zone has, whether it's bucks-only, antlerless lottery or either sex in any given year.

"We can't control the weather and don't have management authority with wolves," he said. "The biggest impact we can have is setting the season, and how many (antlerless) permits we can agree on. We try to find a balance between a little bit of opportunity and allowing the deer herd to recover."

The wolf debate isn't going away. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, is working to delist the wolf from federal protection as an endangered species. Last week, Star Tribune columnist Dennis Anderson called on the DNR to acknowledge the wolf problem in northeastern Minnesota, and to implement wildlife-friendly logging along with bucks-only hunts until the population rebounds. Locally, a group called Hunters For Hunters is conducting listening sessions related to wolf predation of deer.

The group is holding an open forum 6:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 6 at Four Season Sports Complex in Carlton.

"How do we control the predator problem that's destroying our deer population?" a flier for the event reads.

Balzer isn't ready to lay it all at the feet of wolves. Harsh winters, he said, can mean a doe has one fawn instead of twins, or low birth weights affecting mortality.

"I totally acknowledge they're having an impact," he said of wolves. "But we've had wolves for a long time, and pretty good seasons when there were still wolves around."

For King, the specter of wolves meant listening to her grandfather's advice.

"My grandfather always said, 'Don't pass up on the first day what you'd shoot on the last day,'" she said.

So, when the 3-point buck that had appeared in 13 trail camera pictures showed itself across the creek, Trish took aim with her iron sights and fired.

"I was walking and there he was broadside," she said. "I took him at about 120 yards. ... I was happy about that little 3-pointer."

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