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Tuesday's official field reports about opening weekend of the firearms deer season included repeated observations of scant deer sightings up north and widespread disinterest by hunters in that once-bountiful whitetail region.

Some deer camps on public land that traditionally bustled with activity were vacant, state conservation officers reported, and complaints about wolves were rampant. One officer, Hudson Ledeen of Grand Marais and Cook County, wrote that "deer-hunter success was extremely abysmal for the few folks who hunted.''

Those accounts were in sync with statistics released Tuesday for the two biggest hunting days of the year. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the statewide harvest of deer during the opener last weekend was 13% below last year's mark, which was lower than the year before. As of Tuesday morning, hunters had registered 75,900 deer statewide.

To pull even with results from a year ago, deer hunters would have to harvest another 97,000 deer through the remaining five days of the primary firearms season and ancillary hunts that last until Dec. 31. For Minnesota's wildlife managers, hunting is the primary management tool to control the state's whitetail population.

"I'm hoping we can make up the decrease,'' said DNR Big Game Program Supervisor Barb Keller.

The agency isn't blaming weather for the slowdown in deer registrations. On the whole, temperatures were cool but not cold. Snow and rain weren't widespread and hunters didn't have to worry about storms.

The DNR had predicted a low harvest in the Arrowhead region, where the whitetail population has been crashing for several years. "That has definitely played out,'' Keller said. Since the start of archery season Sept. 16, hunters in the northeast have only killed 9,300 deer, nearly 20% fewer than this time last year.

What's needed for the animals to rebound, Keller said, is a string of mild winters. Deer in the Arrowhead have been pounded from consecutive severe winters that wiped out food sources and made the animals more vulnerable to predation, she said. Because of endangered species protections, the DNR hasn't been able to manage the state's gray wolf population via hunting and trapping since 2014. In 2022, the agency estimated Minnesota is home to 500 wolfpacks and up to 3,240 wolves.

Keller said DNR's central region — stretching diagonally from northwest Wadena County to the southeast corner of Houston County — gives Minnesota the best chance to boost sagging harvest results. As of Tuesday morning, hunters in the region had registered 16,788 deer, down 4% compared to a year ago at this time.

She'll be keeping a close eye on that region for a possible improvement in productivity as the primary firearms season continues through Sunday. Keller said she's also going to investigate why the deer harvest has been so light in the southwest region. As of Tuesday morning, the region's hunters had registered 7,800 deer, down a whopping 17% from a year ago.

Licenses decrease, too

Overall deer license sales also were down. Through opening weekend, the DNR sold 376,536 deer licenses of all kinds, down 4% from a year ago. Regular firearms deer license sales fell under 300,000 for the first time since 2007.

Keller said the slide was not unexpected, part of an ongoing bleed in participation as older hunters age out of the sport. But on the flip side, DNR has sold significantly fewer deer licenses to youth hunters this year compared to a year ago. According to sales figures, youth deer licenses with tags for ages 13 to 17 have totaled 34,000 so far this year. That's a 6% decline from a year ago at this time.

Minnesota's archery deer season opened Sept. 16 and runs through Dec. 31. Going into last weekend's opener for the firearms season, bow hunters had killed 12% fewer deer than last year at the same time. Interestingly, Keller said, 40% of the archery harvest has been accomplished with crossbows, the first year they have been legal for all hunters.

No fatal hunting accidents were reported on opening weekend, but there was a close call in Otter Tail County. DNR conservation officer Tricia Plautz reported Tuesday that an occupied deer stand in her patrol area was hit by a neighboring hunter's rifle bullet. Plautz met with everyone involved and the people were cooperative, she reported. "Thankfully, no injuries,'' Plautz wrote.

On opening day in Douglas County, emergency responders called for a helicopter to airlift a 65-year-old man to St. Cloud Hospital. According to the sheriff's Facebook page, the hunter fell 10 feet to the ground from a deer stand early Saturday afternoon near Lake Ida. He was on the ground for about an hour before someone called for help. A conservation officer said the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening.

Regarding wolves in northern Minnesota, Tuesday's conservation officer reports were full of complaints about the predation of deer. There were also many citations issued for hunting over bait.

Conservation officer Anthony Bermel worked in the Babbitt area, hearing from deer hunters about frequent wolf sightings. One hunter had three wolves run to a deer he dropped, Bermel wrote. "After getting his deer back from the wolves and field dressing it, the wolves made quick work of the gut pile and then ran down the power line toward the sound of another gunshot.''

Bermel noted in his report that participation in the hunt was "definitely down.''

West of there, near Orr, conservation officer Troy Fondie reported the fewest number of deer hunters he had seen in his career and even fewer deer. "Many deer camps were vacant,'' he wrote.

Statewide on opening weekend, the DNR ran its largest field surveillance operation for chronic wasting disease (CWD). In designated areas, testing of deer lymph nodes was mandatory for all harvested deer. Results are pending.