Dennis Anderson
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No Minnesota natural resource has received more attention in recent months than the northeast's deer herd.

Beginning in mid-November, at 18 separate meetings held from St. Cloud in the south to International Falls in the north, and from Detroit Lakes in the west to Carlton in the east, about 8,000 hunters have attended gatherings hosted by the new group Hunters For Hunters to air grievances about too few deer in the Arrowhead.

The hunters' primary complaint, based on their experiences in the field, is that wolves have reduced the region's deer population and are keeping deer numbers low.

Whether they are correct about wolves or not, the hunters, in a broader sense, are worried that their traditions and even lifestyles are being threatened. And in fact they are, because deer hunter participation has dropped markedly in the northeast, and the whitetail harvest there last fall was only about half what it was 11 years ago.

In a November column, I wrote that because deer populations are so depressed in parts of the northeast, wolves are their greatest threat to recovery. My reasoning was that in those areas, wolves appear to be sustaining themselves on food sources other than deer, and therefore — at least for the time being — their numbers are not tracking downward in concert with deer populations, as is usually the case in predator-prey cycles.

Perhaps a deer-wolf population imbalance exists in those areas, and perhaps — as researchers from the Voyageurs Wolf Project, an adjunct of the University of Minnesota, say — it doesn't. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong.

Rob Eldridge doesn't think so. In 2020, he and his wife, Amra, moved with their four kids from the Twin Cities to a home in Deer Permit Area (DPA) 119, bordering Voyageurs National Park, where wolf numbers have been stable, according to the Voyageurs Wolf Project.

Off the grid, the Eldridges' home can be reached only by snowmobile or ATV.

"The first years we were here, I hunted deer because I wanted to feed my family," Eldridge said. "We have cameras in our woods and initially we saw deer. Now all we see are wolves and no deer. Last year I didn't even buy a hunting license."

He wasn't alone. In 2022, only 145,000 deer hunters went afield in the northeast, about 36,000 fewer than in 2012. Hunter success in that decade fell from 31% to 22%.

Eric Michel is the DNR researcher who compiles deer harvest and other data to assess the size of the state's whitetail populations. According to his estimates, deer numbers in Eldridge's hunting area fell from .80 bucks and .11 does per square mile in 2012, to .29 bucks and zero does per square mile in 2022. Hunters' deer harvests in DPA 119 also declined, from 859 to 227.

Deer numbers are so low in DPA 119, Michel said, that hunters are allowed to kill only bucks. Deer herds require a certain percentage of adult females, he said, to sustain or increase their size. "The number of adult females in a population has the most impact on its reproductive capacity," he said. "That's why we protect them by restricting the number of antlerless permits we issue to hunters."

Michel also inputs data from the DNR's Winter Severity Index (WSI) into his deer population estimates. The index scores winter temperatures and snow depths to determine a cold-weather season's impact on deer.

The winter of 2013 was a deer killer across northern Minnesota. As a result, as the accompanying graphic shows, the northeast's (Zone 100) whitetail harvest the following year was less than half what it was two years earlier in 2012. The most recent two winters were severe as well, contributing to a harvest of 29,000 deer last fall in the northeast, lower even than the 2014 kill of 32,000.

So, yes, as deer and wolf researchers — and hunters — have long attested: winter weather in the north is a primary determinant of whitetail populations. The problem is, weather is what it is — we can't do anything about it.

Forest habitat, however, is another issue. Could northeast woodlands be managed in ways that increase deer and, yes, wolf populations, and stabilize them at higher levels?

Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and overseer of wolf and moose studies, thinks so. The primary driver of deer and moose populations in the northeast, he believes, isn't wolves — which, he acknowledges, some Fond du Lac members would hunt and trap if the band allowed it — but the availability of quality habitat.

More burning on the landscape would help, he said, and more wildlife-friendly logging.

"I wish deer hunters would see habitat and its effect on deer the same way they see wolf tracks," he said. "I wish they held county and state foresters to the same standards they hold wildlife managers."

Schrage's sentiments echo those of Stephen Thomforde, a Duluth ecologist who has hunted for decades near Ely. They and others say that increasing the breadth and quality of northeast habitat is the best chance hunters have to boost the region's deer numbers. State, tribal, federal and other landowners could do this by preserving and regenerating white cedar and other winter cover, and by replanting logged areas with trees that benefit deer and other wildlife.

"As always with wildlife, it's not the number of predators on the landscape or the number of game animals we shoot, it's the habitat," Thomforde said, adding that improving the region's winter deer cover would disperse whitetails more evenly across the landscape.

The habitat idea has merit, if only because, for the indefinite future, Minnesota wolves are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Even if their management is returned to the state — a big if — any wolf hunting and trapping seasons Minnesota enacts likely will be intended to benefit moose in specific areas and to minimize livestock depredation, not reduce the state's overall wolf numbers.

So why not work toward improving the state's North Woods forest habitat?

"If we had a combination of logging and burning regenerating more of the northeast, as the region has been regenerated throughout history," Thomforde said, "deer would say 'amen, brother,' and so would wolves. But deer numbers would be higher than they are now."

Whether that pitch has enough zing to attract 8,000 deer hunters to gather in 18 Minnesota towns in just a few months is, of course, another question. But the DNR — as I also suggested in my November column — would do well to call the meetings and see what happens.

Everyone could benefit, including deer.