Minnesota's whitetail deer harvest got off to a slow start on opening weekend despite good year-over-year sales of hunting licenses.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, 93,000 deer were harvested as of late Monday. To match 2020's total deer harvest of 197,000, hunters will need to pick up the pace. The statewide firearms deer season ends at nightfall Sunday, but opportunities will continue for firearms hunters in southeastern Minnesota's upcoming "B" season, bow hunters and muzzleloader hunters.
The DNR counted 58,370 kills Saturday and Sunday, 11% below the mark set by hunters on last year's opening weekend. The two-day tally is watched closely for deer management because it normally accounts for 40% of the total annual harvest.
"Hopefully we will make it up over the remainder of the season,'' said Barb Keller, the DNR's big game program leader.
Opening weekend temperatures were mild for deer hunting this year and last year. Keller guessed that participation may have been greater in 2020 because the coronavirus pandemic boosted the popularity of outdoor activities and hunters may have been more motivated.
Some conservation officers around the state reported that unseasonably warm weather influenced the outcome Saturday and Sunday. It brought out hunters in some parts of the state but also limited the number of deer on the move. Coming into this year's hunt, deer populations across the state were at least stable, if not robust in many areas.
In Crosby, conservation officer Tony Flerlage said most hunters enjoyed their time regardless of the outcome. "The mild weather and early antlerless season were repeated as reasons for not seeing more deer," he said in his weekly report.
Officers were kept busy with various violations — from loaded firearms in vehicles to hunters using bait. But hunters overall "did a good job abiding by the rules and regulations — which are in place to ensure hunters in the future have the same opportunities we do today," said Joe Albert, Law Enforcement Division spokesman for the DNR.
No serious accidents were reported, but the DNR said a successful ground and aerial search may have saved a lost hunter in the north. Regionally speaking, hunting lagged the most in the region northeast of a line from Pine City to Roseau. In that "100 series'' of deer permit areas, DNR recorded a 20% decline in the whitetail harvest on opening weekend.
Hunting license sales were a bright spot. DNR sold 398,717 deer hunting licenses through the weekend of the opener. Over the same period last year, license sales were just 1% better.
In other developments, the DNR on Thursday confirmed chronic wasting disease (CWD) in a Minnesota deer near North Dakota that was harvested during this year's youth hunt. The deer appeared healthy, DNR Wildlife Health Supervisor Michele Carstensen said. But the family hunts a lot and always tests for CWD.
The case opened up a new front in Minnesota's fight against the always-fatal neurological disease. It prompted the DNR to implement voluntary CWD sampling for all deer harvested for the remainder of this season in two deer permit areas from Moorhead, north to Oslo.
For hunters elsewhere in the state who complied with mandatory CWD testing on opening weekend, lab results are expected starting early next week.