BEMIDJI — Managing a deer population is not an exact science. Different people have different ideas regarding how many deer are enough and how many deer are too many And, when you complicate the picture by including private agricultural land and dense public forest areas, the scene becomes even cloudier.
Shelley Gorham is the Bemijdi Area DNR Wildlife Supervisor and among her duties is determining the best ways to manage the deer herd.
Gorham and her associates have had to respond to a roller-coaster ride in terms of the deer population. The severe winters of 1996 and 1997 devastated the herd and the drop in the population was reflected in fewer than 150,000 being harvested in 1997. That figure is the harvest low point during the past 20 years.
But only six years after the nadir and because of a series of mild winters, the population did a 180-degree turn and the harvest reached the peak as hunters took almost 300,000 deer in 2003.
The kill, which was buoyed by liberal harvest options incorporated by DNR officials, hovered around the 250,000 mark for the next four years. Once the surplus deer were taken, however, the officials returned to a more restrictive harvest ideology and the result has been an overall kill that has neared the 200,000 mark during the past five seasons.
Last year’s kill was 184,649, a drop of 4 percent from the 2011 harvest.
Gorham expects this year’s kill in the Bemidji area to be similar to last season’s. A year ago hunters harvested between 3 and 4.5 deer in permit areas 184, 110 and 210, according to DNR officials. In permit area 209 north and west of Bemidji the harvest ranged between 1.7 and 2.9.
Similar to 2012, Gorham has designated area 184 as a lottery zone and she has dedicated 5,500 antlerless permits for the area. In 2011, area 184 was a hunter’s choice governance (a hunter could take a doe or a buck). In 2010 it was a lottery zone but in 2009 it was designated as a managed area where a hunter could take two deer.
“I think the population right now is similar to what it was last year,” Gorham said of the deer numbers in areas 184 and 110, “but they may be slightly down because of last year’s winter.”
In 2010 and 2011 the Bemidji area experienced relatively balmy winter conditions and the deer enjoyed the weather as much as the people did. DNR officials use the Winter Severity Index (WSI) as a tool to gauge the stress on the deer herd and in those two winters the need never existed to compute the numbers.
Last winter, however, the scenario was different. The snow arrived late but once it was on the ground it never left. Winter held its grasp through all of April and much of May and area anglers may remember that on opening day of the walleye season most of the lakes were still frozen.
Last year’s WSI in the Bemidji area was about 120 and when the number exceeds 100 DNR officials believe that deer mortality is underway.
“The winter was moderate to severe and when the WSI is over 100 it impacts deer reproduction and the proportion of the herd that makes it to spring,” Gorham said. “In the Bemidji area, if people noticed deer mortality, it primarily was the fawns that were having a tough time.”
Gorham’s territory also includes parts of areas 209 and 210 in Clearwater County and, for the second straight season, those areas will be under managed status which means that a hunter can take up to two deer.
“There is much more agricultural land in those areas and the deer are maintaining their population status,” Gorham said. “It is taking longer to get the deer numbers down (in 209 and 210) because of the ample food sources associated with the agriculture in those areas and the proportion of private lands.
“We try to manage for those areas but we have to manage area-wide,” Gorham continued. “There will always be the areas with high densities and areas with low densities.”
Overall, Gorham expects this season in all of her work permit areas to be similar to the 2012 hunt.
“What hunters experienced last year they probably will experience this year,” she said. “There may potentially be fewer deer because of last winter’s effects but, overall, I think the season will be similar to 2012.”