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Spotlight on deer may put more in hunter's sights

NEW LONDON -- Local wildlife workers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources put deer in the spotlight this spring.

Area hunters could put more deer in their gun sights this autumn as a result.

The wildlife workers drove designated routes and shined deer with spotlights from their vehicles. Known as distance sampling, the two-person teams recorded how many pairs of deer eyes glowed back at them.

They used range-finders to determine how far away the deer were; all part of a system designed to calculate deer density in a given area.

"It was interesting,'' said LeRoy Dahlke, manager of the DNR wildlife office located in Sibley State Park near New London.

The new approach to determine the deer population in the region confirms what wildlife managers believed: Deer numbers are on the increase.

Dahlke said permits had been scaled back during the last few years to allow the deer numbers to rebound.

He now anticipates that the number of antlerless permits in deer hunt zone 277 will be increased.

To find out how many deer are out there, Dahlke and colleague Jeff Miller drove seven different, 30- to 40-mile long routes in zone 277, which encompasses Kandiyohi, Pope and Meeker counties.

Sometimes accompanied by volunteers, they began driving the routes at the end of March and continued well into April, quitting when the spring greenery up obscured the viewing. They started driving about an hour before sunset. They only shined for deer while going along randomly-picked sections of the routes.

On most nights they would see 20-40 deer, said the wildlife manager.

On one Pope County route they saw 92 deer.

Miller, the assistant wildlife manager, said he was expecting to see lots of deer when he followed a route around the lakes area north of Willmar.

Instead, he saw lots and lots of window lights from cabins and homes, but no more than 16 deer on the route leading from Eagle to Games Lake.

The distance sampling model for determining deer numbers has been used with success in eastern states, said Dalhke.

Until now, Minnesota has determined deer densities mainly by looking at the number of deer registered by hunters, and by helicopter visual inspections conducted in the winter. Information gleaned from vehicle-deer crashes is also used.

Dahlke said the old model tended to overestimate the number of deer.

This year's try with distance sampling has led him to believe that it may underestimate the number of deer. Yet overall, he believes it gives a much more accurate count.

The new model calculated an average deer density of four per square mile in the zone. That compares to estimates of six to eight deer per square mile under the old model, he said.

He said his suspicion that this model may underestimate comes from the fact that in some areas, it's impossible to see some deer with a spotlight even if they might be close at hand.

He pointed out that the terrain in parts of northern Kandiyohi and Pope Counties is very wooded and hilly.

The DNR continues to take into account deer registration numbers and other information in determining harvest goals for each zone.

There were 950 permits available in the zone last year, and that could jump to 1,500-1,800 based on the new model numbers. That is still below the 2,000-3,000 permits that were available in the years when deer numbers were well above current levels.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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