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After years of too many deer, the pendulum has swung back toward rebuilding whitetail herds in many parts of Minnesota

Thousands of hunters will venture north this weekend for deer hunting opener looking for that big buck, like this 12-pointer photographed west of Bemidji. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

Brad Dokken

Forum News Service

Think of it in sports terms, and it’s a rebuilding season for Minnesota’s deer herd in most parts of the state. That means hunters in many areas will be going afield either in "hunter’s choice" or "lottery" permit areas when the state’s deer season opens Saturday morning.

Either a buck or a doe, in other words, in hunter’s choice areas — or bucks-only if they didn’t apply for and receive an antlerless permit in the areas designated as lottery.

In the Bemidji area, which is located in permit areas 184, 110 and 197, the majority of hunters will be dealing with lottery area regulations.

DNR officials have allotted 5,500 antlerless permits for area 184, 2,000 for 110 and 1,500 for area 197. Those numbers are similar to the 2012 figures.

The days of "intensive" management designations, where hunters could buy as many as four antlerless tags in addition to their regular license, are generally gone with the exception of a handful of permit areas near the Twin Cities.

The lone permit area close to Bemidji that still offers intensive privileges is 287 (Itasca State Park).

Even the less-liberal "management" areas, which allow a two-deer limit, are less common than they were just a couple of years ago and limited mostly to areas of north-central and southeast Minnesota.

Areas governed by the management regulations near Bemidji include permit areas 240 and 241 (south and west of Park Rapids).

The push toward more restrictive deer management is largely by design, wildlife managers say.

"We’re going to see a deer season similar to last year" in terms of regulations, said John Williams, regional wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "In many areas, we still don’t really have a good handle on the ability of an area and whether it can sustain a managed harvest strategy year after year."

Bemidji Area DNR wildlife supervisor Shelley Gorham also expects a hunting season similar to 2012 in her permit areas.

"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."

Williams agreed, believing that the extended winter in northern Minnesota likely had a negative impact on production.

"From early reports, hunters are not seeing as many fawns with does as they typically would be seeing," he said. "That could be a direct result of the long winter."

Last winter the snow arrived late but once it was on the ground it seemingly never left. Winter held its grasp through all of April and much of May. Area anglers may remember that on opening day of the walleye season most of the lakes were still frozen.

Last year’s Winter Severity Index (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."

Finding the middle ground, or what Williams calls the "sweet spot," is the tricky part for wildlife managers not only in Minnesota, but across the country. The DNR after severe winters in the late 1990s implemented conservative regulations that saw deer populations quickly explode to the point where hunters in 2003 registered a record 290,525 deer — more than double the 143,327 registered in 1997 after the last extreme winter.

Last year, by comparison, hunters registered 186,634 deer in Minnesota between the firearm, archery and muzzleloader seasons.

"We went way over goal in many areas, and it took quite awhile to get back to the state we’re in," Williams said. "We’re finally building populations; before that, we were taking populations down toward goal."

So, which is better from a manager’s perspective?

"That depends on who you want hollering at you," Williams said. "With high populations, there are (crop) depredation concerns, forest damage and car collisions. And on the other hand, with low populations, there’s less recreational value and hunters are concerned about seeing deer.

"If we can get close to that sweet spot where you’re not too hot and not too cold … it’s all but impossible to hit that. We don’t want to be in a situation where we really have to manage up or really have to manage down."

Either way, though, few events on the outdoors calendar can top the Minnesota deer opener when it comes to tradition. Across the Northland, hunters are firing up the wood stoves in hunting camps, fixing deer stands and looking forward to time spent with family and friends.

No wonder, then, that some half a million people, give or take a few thousand, will be venturing afield during the firearms deer season.

"Overall, it’s kind of hard unless you’re in that area where we’re really trying to build up deer numbers to not be excited about deer season," Williams said. "There’s going to be opportunities for just about everybody that goes out. I’m really expecting it to be kind of a robust, fairly active deer season."

Pioneer sports editor Pat Miller contributed to this article.

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