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Seeking balance in deer population

WILLMAR -- Success in one area doesn't always mean success in others.

There's usually a balancing factor when it comes to hunting. That's no less true than the balance the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources needed to make when the numbers of anterless deer continued to come in lower and lower each year, despite the changes north of Belgrade a few years ago, which changed everything north of state Highway 55 a managed zone instead of a lottery zone.

The solution, for this season, which runs today and Sunday for Zone 4A, and Nov.10-13 for Zone 4B, is to severely limit the number of permits in areas where the pressure has been the greatest.

So, for those who would normally hunt in Zones 424-427, which runs from south of Morris southeast to Gaylord and Winthrop, there weren't many permits to go around. Each of those zones offered just 15 permits per season. In 2005, those areas had 100-400 permits available. Last year, there were 50-225.

One of the reasons for the drastic decrease in permit numbers is the popularity of the All-Season Deer License. This program was created by the state Legislature in 2000 to increase the hunting opportunities for hunters during all three seasons -- archery, firearms and muzzleloader. Regardless of the zone restrictions, such as a lottery zone, All-Season hunters could take an antlerless deer during firearms season, then come back during muzzleloader season for another.

In areas like the Willmar region, where deer numbers aren't quite as high as they are just 45 miles north, the pressure on does became too much.

"Because they have high deer numbers in the northern part of the state, they liberalized the deer permits. It didn't allow us to control the numbers in the lottery zones," said Leroy Dahlke, manager of the DNR's Willmar Wildlife office. "The all-season licenses put pressure on antlerless deer. I'm hoping with the changes we can increase the numbers of does."

The DNR made changes to the All-Season license program last spring. Now, All-Season license holders can still take an antlerless deer, but only one for the whole year, not up to three like before. Dahlke said it was the only way to still allow hunting opportunities for antlerless deer. Otherwise, there would have been a "bucks only" season, which the DNR stated would take away hunting chances for youth and disabled hunters.

"We'd like to bring the deer numbers back up, if we could," Dahlke said. "We changed the All-Season license so they can't take three deer by various means, but still allow youth and handicapped to take an antlerless deer. This is the lowest we've ever had (permit numbers)."

When the DNR asked the public for its input into managing the deer population last year, the consensus was that boosting the overall deer population in this area would be a good thing.

But it means that hunting opportunities for hunters in Zone 4 won't be as plentiful as they have been over the last five years.

"(The deer population is) lower than it's been since about 1995-96. People are going to have to be more patient this year," Dahlke said. "The pressure will be more on bucks with the limited antlerless deer. If we can recruit more adult does, we can build up the deer population."

Factor in the later harvest across the area because of a wet October and the hunting prospects overall will be lower.

"You have localized areas that are good," Dahlke said. "When there's more standing corn, there's more cover. It's good we reduced the number we've had, because the deer would be vulnerable."