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Minn. could see antler-point restrictions in 2010

ROCHESTER -- In the future, when bluff land deer hunters see a buck, they might need to take a deep breath and count to four.

It's possible they will have to make sure the buck has at least four one-inch tines on one side before they can shoot. That management method became the de facto focus of a late March deer-hunting round-table in Rochester.

Bluffland Whitetails Association organized the gathering of top Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers, deer-hunter groups and experts from three other states. BWA and several other groups say they are seeing too few big bucks and want a better chance to shoot one someday. Just knowing more big bucks are in the woods would make the hunt more enjoyable, and maybe keep more people hunting.

The question is how to get that balance. The answer that appeared most viable: point restrictions.

Lonnie Hansen of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources is in the middle of leading such a change, and he said that although hunters objected at first, they began seeing more big bucks and changed their minds in fairly short order. Some counties now have 70 percent acceptance rates for that change, he said. The state is expanding the management technique into a majority of the state's counties.

After a few years, the number of yearling bucks shot in Missouri fell 66 percent, he said. But the harvest of 2.5-year-olds rose 20 percent, 3.5-year-olds was up 62 percent and older ones rose 200 percent. Keep in mind, that the 200 percent rise really means a relatively small number because there weren't that many in the first place.

But it was striking how Hansen said the initial hesitancy fell away when hunters got used to it and started seeing more big bucks.

That was a theme other speakers used. Even in Minnesota, where some experimental limits on bucks have been tried in state parks, the concept grew more popular each year. Hunters tried it, and they liked it.

The Minnesota DNR indicated it's very receptive to antler point restrictions, and it's likely that the southeast region would be the site of major experimental regulations. The DNR estimates that roughly half the yearling bucks wouldn't meet the four-point standard and thus would be protected.

Another example cited of a place where it worked was Pennsylvania. It had the worst-managed deer herd in the country because of the tradition of killing most of the yearling bucks and not taking enough does, said Marrett Grund, a Minnesota DNR whitetail expert who once worked there.

With the restrictions, buck harvest fell from 203,000 to about 125,000 a year, he said. Hunters were happy because they now might see two or three bucks a day; before, seeing a buck was rare after the first day of the season, he said. The days of shoot-all-bucks are gone.

Point restrictions were able to "break the back of that tradition," he said.

In Minnesota, buck harvest statewide with antler-point restrictions would fall from about 110,000 to about 65,000, Grund said. But it could also mean more does would be shot, because in areas where the DNR wants to cull the herd by offering many antlerless permits, 84 percent of hunters only take one deer, he said. If they can't take a yearling, they might take a doe.

Kip Adams, a biologist with the Quality Deer Management Association, said about 60 percent of its bucks harvested in Minnesota are yearlings, which is among the highest in the country. Having too few older bucks means more yearlings will breed. That means they go into winter in poorer shape, he said.

The meeting, however, was just the beginning, said Dave Schad, director of the Minnesota DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. The DNR plans to do an intensive survey of hunters in this region, then hold public meetings about possible changes. The earliest any big change will come would be 2010, he said.

"We have a lot of work to do," he said.

But two other top managers added a huge note of optimism that change is coming.

People at the meeting showed off some cutting-edge ideas, said Lou Cornicelli, big-game program coordinator. "I'm encouraged that we can begin doing all of this stuff."

Added Dennis Simon, wildlife section chief, "I think we are on the verge of doing something."