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As deer hunters enjoy another big harvest ...

BLOOMINGTON -- The last shot has yet to be fired, but the 2006 deer season is looking like one for the record books, according to Lou Cornicelli, big game director with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

BLOOMINGTON -- The last shot has yet to be fired, but the 2006 deer season is looking like one for the record books, according to Lou Cornicelli, big game director with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Minnesota hunters had registered 252,000 deer, according to a count taken earlier this week. It puts them on track to make this the third- or second-largest deer harvest ever, Cornicelli told participants at the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation District's annual convention held Monday and Tuesday in Bloomington.

The record was set in 2003 when hunters harvested 290,500 deer. Cornicelli said he believes this year's harvest could reach around 270,000 deer when the muzzleloader (Dec. 10) and archery seasons (Dec. 31) end. If so, that would top the 260,604 deer taken in 2004, the second highest number ever recorded. The big game director said he's confident that this year's harvest will at least go down on the books as the third biggest.

It represents a dramatic turn around from 1971, when deer numbers were so low the state did not offer a deer season, Cornicelli noted.

Until then, state deer hunting regulations allowed hunters to take deer of either sex.

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The introduction of regulations that focused on harvesting males and limited the taking of anterless deer has helped foster the growth of a large deer population in the state.

It is an industry all its own. Cornicelli said that 500,000 hunters pursue deer in Minnesota each year. Deer hunting generates an estimated $465 million in retail revenues for the state each year. It makes deer hunting a bigger contributor to the state's economy than the entire wheat crop.

Deer hunting opportunities like those now being enjoyed are likely to continue well into the future, but some changes are likely. Cornicelli said the state's current approach cannot control the deer population as it should in some areas, and problems are evident. The state's forested areas are experiencing habitat damage as deer selectively browse on their favored plants.

DNR examining deer management

The DNR is now well into the process of a comprehensive examination of its deer management strategy. One of the early findings suggests that changes will not be easy. A survey based on responses from 3,300 deer hunters found limited support for making changes in regulations.

The survey by the University of Minnesota asked hunters what changes they would favor to harvest more female deer. The survey found that an antler point restriction would be the regulatory change most likely to be accepted by hunters. It would restrict the harvest of bucks to those 1Β½ years or older.

Some 47 percent of hunters supported the alternative. A nearly equal percentage also supported a ban on cross-tagging for bucks.

Only 29 percent of respondents favored a buck lottery. Only 28 percent said they were willing to move the firearms season out of the rut.

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Cornicelli said the idea of a lottery is often raised in the northwestern part of the state due to its use in North Dakota. He pointed out that there are more deer hunters in Minnesota than there are people in all of North Dakota.

The DNR believes that regulations must have public support if hunters are going to abide by them, he said.

What size deer population is right?

The DNR is also in the midst of determining what people consider an acceptable deer population in different parts of the state. By and large, the determination of the appropriate deer population is a social issue, Cornicelli said.

Focus group studies have now been completed with people living in forested areas of the state. In the year ahead, the DNR will be meeting with those living in the agricultural areas south of I-94 and west of Minnesota Highway 52 to determine what sort of deer density is desired on the landscape.

Cornicelli said the findings in the forest area are not yet ready for release, but it is apparent that there are different views and issues in different areas.

There are some common themes no matter where the topic of deer hunting is raised. A vast majority of deer hunters want the opportunity to hunt bucks. There is also lots of interest in seeing older and larger bucks in the population.

Cornicelli said "Earn-a-Buck' and other steps to increase the harvest of does are sure to be discussed when there is a need to reduce the deer population in an area. Harvesting does is the most effective means of reducing the population.

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In contrast, the expanded opportunities to take more than one deer have not significantly affected the deer population, said Cornicelli. Some 75 percent of hunters only want to harvest one deer, while another 20 percent are willing to harvest two.

There is increasing discussion about the "aging" of the deer hunting population, and whether the state might someday lack for hunters to properly manage the deer population. Cornicelli said that there are longer term projections that show a decline in deer hunter numbers, but he doesn't expect the state to lack in deer hunters during the next 20 years.

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