Unable to bring people physically together to talk about deer hunting in the state due to COVID-19 concerns, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Tuesday evening, Aug. 18, held a virtual public meeting on deer issues and deer management, with participants joining online and by phone.

DNR wildlife managers offered a 48-minute presentation on whitetail topics and then answered questions from the public for about 15 minutes on subjects ranging from wolves and chronic wasting disease, to license sales and the timing of deer seasons each fall.

About 80 people from the public and another 40 DNR wildlife staff had tuned in to the virtual meeting. Questions were screened, then relayed to Barb Keller, the DNR’s big game program leader, for answers.

Among the hot topics covered:

  • Aging hunters: While deer hunting has been held up as one of the few hunting seasons still drawing large numbers of participants, DNR officials made it clear they are worried that existing hunters are aging out of the sport far faster than new hunters are coming in. Hunter recruitment and retention is a top priority of the DNR, Keller said. Deer license sales have been declining gradually since 2013 in the state. In 2015, the average age of a Minnesota deer hunter was about 53. Just four years later, in 2019, that had jumped to nearly 60. There were about 464,000 deer hunters in Minnesota last year, about one of every 12 residents.

  • Chronic wasting disease: Keller said there are concerns within the agency that this year’s voluntary CWD testing in CWD hotspots may not acquire enough samples to show an accurate survey of whether more wild deer are carrying the deadly disease. The DNR expanded testing to include new areas near CWD-positive deer farms but also made it voluntary in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns of bringing too many hunters together at sampling centers. Still, the agency is “really encouraging hunters to bring their samples in,’’ Keller said. The good news is that, near a CWD-infected deer farm in Crow Wing County near Brainerd, DNR has tested 12,794 wild deer, with just the one positive so far. Statewide, DNR has tested nearly 90,000 wild deer in recent years with 88 total positive cases, dramatically fewer than Iowa and Wisconsin.

  • Statewide youth season: The first statewide four-day firearms deer season in 2019 appears to have been mildly popular, and the DNR says a majority of deer hunters surveyed support continuing the effort. The October season, held to encourage more youth participation, amounted to 4.2% of the total deer harvest in 2019, averaging 46 deer shot per management area. This year’s youth season is set for Oct. 15-18.

  • Wolves: Keller reminded participants that wolves are federally protected and off-limits to state management unless and until its federal endangered status changes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is apparently ready to propose delisting wolves for hunting in Great Lakes states yet again, but no action has been taken and wolves remain protected by court order.

  • Later deer season: Another question asked about delaying the regular firearms deer season until after the mating season, or rut. Keller responded saying there was very little appetite among hunters to change the traditional season structure, noting most hunters surveyed like hunting during the rut to see more deer activity.

  • Allowing rifles statewide for deer hunting: Keller said that while this was a legislative proposal last year the bill did not pass and shotgun-only restrictions remain for much of the southern portions of the state. Keller said DNR will not pursue allowing rifles statewide and that the issue will be decided by the Legislature.

  • Allowing crossbows during archery season: Keller said the DNR likely won’t take a lead on this issue, noting a majority of traditional bowhunters favor continuing the ban on crossbows except for disabled and elderly hunters as is currently allowed. Keller said a change allowing crossbows for the general hunting public will have to come from the Legislature.

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Minnesota’s archery deer season starts Sept. 19. The firearms deer season starts Nov. 7.