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Larger herd means more opportunity: This year's deer hunting goal for Minnesota is to shoot more does

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As a conservation officer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Stuart Bensen spends most of the firearms deer season checking other hunters. That keeps him out of the deer stand until muzzleloader season begins in late November. But growing up hunting in the mid-1970s, Bensen says he remembers a different limitation on his deer season.

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The critters just weren't as plentiful as they are now.

"If you saw four or five deer in nine days, you were considered lucky," said Bensen, of Erskine. "Now, if you don't see four or five in a day, it's a slow day."

In terms of sheer numbers, at least, these are good days for deer hunting in Minnesota. According to the DNR, the statewide deer herd numbers about 1.2 million, similar to last year when hunters shot more than 260,000 deer, the second-highest total ever.

Coupled with regulation changes that give hunters even more opportunities to shoot deer, this season should offer similar success. Minnesota's firearms deer season opens Saturday.

In an effort to get a handle on high deer numbers, the DNR this year is offering intensive harvest tags in 57 permit areas -- roughly twothirds of the state -- encouraging hunters to shoot more antlerless deer. Hunters in these areas may use the bonus tags to legally shoot up to five deer, only one of which can be a buck.

Meanwhile, the DNR also designated 42 "managed" permit areas, where hunters may use a bonus tag to shoot up to two deer, only one a buck. Unlike the old days, when hunters statewide needed to apply for doe permits, the requirement this year applied to only 40 lottery permit areas -- none in the northwest part of the state.

"As an agency, we're putting a real emphasis on harvesting does," Lou Cornicelli, big game program manager for the DNR in St. Paul, said in a news release. "Taking a buck out of the population does little to lower overall numbers because one male can breed several females.

"If you want to control deer numbers, you need to reduce the number of females available for breeding."

In northwest Minnesota, perhaps the biggest change in hunting regulations this fall involves the moving of nine permit areas from Zone 4 to Zone 2. That gives hunters in those nine permit areas a nine-day season, instead of the two- or fourday split season they had under the old format. Before, the hunters had to buy a special $53 multi-zone buck license or $79 all-season license to hunt more than the two or four days.

According to Cornicelli, moving the permit areas to Zone 2 will cost the DNR between $30,000 and $50,000 in license revenues because hunters no longer need to buy the more expensive license. But at a time of high deer populations, the increase in hunting opportunities is a fair trade.

Although the zone boundaries have changed, the rifleshotgun line -- basically the Red River Valley -- remains the same as in previous years.

Minnesota's deer hunting tradition runs deep, and roughly 500,000 hunters will take to the field for this year's season. For context, that's nearly the population of the entire state of North Dakota.

Bensen, who spent several years as a conservation officer in Roseau, says he got a firsthand look -- and taste -- of that tradition by visiting hunting camps during deer season. Big traditions in the northern, forested areas of Minnesota, hunting camps are less prevalent in the more open country near Erskine, he said.

"Actually, getting a deer is just a small portion" of the deer camp tradition, Bensen said. "It's the camaraderie, just the every year annual event. People look forward to it; that to them is the biggest part. From my perspective, I dearly miss going to the deer camps. Some I went to just religiously. There was one where I always used to go the first Tuesday of deer season. They make a tremendous breakfast. I went out of there and didn't need to eat lunch."

While die-hard deer hunters might prefer colder weather and snow, Bensen says he wouldn't mind seeing warmer temperatures. No doubt the deer move less in warmer weather, he says, but so do the hunters.

"People stay in their stands because they can," Bensen said. "We have a lot fewer problems. Trespass complaints are down, injuries are down, people just don't do inappropriate things, and it makes it more enjoyable. It might be more difficult for tracking, but that goes back to practice, placement of your shot."

The DNR recently held a meeting in Thief River Falls to take input on helping the agency set deer population goals for northwestern Minnesota. As part of that process, a team consisting of landowners, conservation groups and others met twice over the summer and recommended that deer numbers decrease in all but two of 13 permit areas included in the process.

According to Cornicelli, who attended the meeting, hunters will play a vital role in making that happen. But despite increased opportunities for hunters to shoot deer this fall, Cornicelli said only 5 percent of the state's hunters traditionally shoot three or more deer. Ten percent will shoot two, he said, while a vast majority -- 85 percent -- are satisfied to take one deer.

The big challenge, of course, is convincing hunters it's OK to shoot a doe in a hunting culture where bucks are revered as the ultimate success.

And this year, they'll certainly have plenty of opportunities.

"Hunters are our best tool for managing the state's deer populations," Cornicelli said. "We're making it easier for them to harvest antlerless deer where densities are high."

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