Dennis Anderson
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– The day in 1948 that Phil Kruegel’s parents brought him home from the hospital, newly born, his dad spotted the first white-tailed deer he had ever seen in these parts. Grouse were plentiful at the time in the countryside surrounding their home here in southeast Minnesota, about 6 miles from the Iowa border. But deer were scarce.

That changed. By 1959, whitetails were commonplace among the red and white oaks, hickories, maples and aspen that imbue this part of Minnesota with its rich character. Bluffs also tower here, and steep draws snake among its woods, and when men returned from World War II, they cleared more and more of the trees for their livestock, hayfields and cash crops.

Those changes helped boost the deer population. “By 1959 I was hunting deer with my dad, who gave me a 28-gauge shotgun to use,” Kruegel said. “That year, Dad shot a buck, a doe and a fawn. I shot a fawn. And our hired man shot a 10-point buck. We were done hunting by 10:30 opening morning.”

As Kruegel spoke, the afternoon sun slanted through the picture window of his home, which is constructed of northern Minnesota pine logs. This was on Thursday, and Kruegel, a cattleman wearing bib overalls, a cap and bandanna knotted cowboy-style around his neck, was tired: He had gotten only two hours of sleep the night before, because some of his 100 or so mother cows were due to calve, and he was on watch.

Kruegel had other things on his mind as well, not least the deer that inhabit this part of the state, and the finding in recent months by the Department of Natural Resources of five wild deer in the southeast infected by chronic wasting disease (CWD).

In response, the DNR intends to kill at least 900 adult deer in a 371-square-mile region of the southeast in an attempt to gauge whether the disease, which is always fatal to deer, moose and elk, is limited in scope, or widespread.

Toward that end, a special 16-day public hunt concludes today in the southeast, and on Monday, landowners in the region will begin a special season of their own. A difference between the two: Landowners can use rifles, while participants afield in the past two weeks were limited to shotguns, bows or handguns — the same weaponry allowed them in this part of the state during regular deer-hunting seasons.

Shaped by the land he inhabits, Kruegel has witnessed over his lifetime the disappearance of the southeast’s ruffed grouse, the upsurge of wild turkeys and coyotes, the near-disappearance of once-plentiful ducks, the infestation of possums, and the seemingly inevitable undulation of deer numbers.

Also he’s closely attuned to the comings and goings of raccoons, which he hunts.

The low water mark for deer hereabout, he said, was 1971, when the season was closed for lack of animals. Up to that year, state wildlife managers had allowed deer of either sex to be killed by hunters, which contributed to the population downturn. Afterward, as now, the killing of antlerless, or female deer by hunters was restricted, a management change that boosted the overall population.

Deer hunting methods also have changed here over time, Kruegel said.

In the mid-1960s, he and his neighbors started “driving” deer, or pushing them out of woodlots using gangs of hunters. When the animals were in the open, awaiting hunters drew down their 12 gauges, leading the fast-disappearing animals a length or so before squeezing their triggers, hoping to lay up some venison for the coming cold months.

“I remember one year, I think it was 1964,” Kruegel said. “We had a meat pole in the yard, and we had 13 bucks and one coyote hanging from it.”

In time, still more deer would populate the nearly 600 acres Kruegel owns, and the similarly large acreages his relatives and neighbors own — a combined tract of some 2,500 acres.

“No Trespassing” signs frame the perimeters of these properties. But it wasn’t always so.

“It took 10 or 15 years, a little at a time, before everyone around here posted their land,” Kruegel said. “As they did, that was the end of deer drives and the beginning of stand hunting. You wouldn’t want to drive deer off your property onto your neighbor’s property if you couldn’t hunt them there.”

In the 1990s and early 2000s, deer numbers rocketed skyward in the southeast. In successive years, when five-deer limits were allowed hunters by the DNR, Kruegel and his neighbors killed more than 220 deer on their 2,500 acres.

“One thing that has changed in recent years is that now every hunter down here wants a trophy buck,” Kruegel said. “When I was a kid, it was enough just to get a deer. Now everyone wants a big one. The thing is, there aren’t enough trophies to go around, not even around here.”

Like many landowners in the southeast, Kruegel isn’t eager to kill deer because of the CWD scare. One reason, he acknowledges, is that he doesn’t have as much “hunt” in him as he once did. And in many ways, he says, deer he spots from a country road, lying still in snow on a cold winter’s day, are his friends. The coming winter, he knows, might be tough on them, and he’s loathe to exacerbate it.

Still, he and his relatives and friends will kill 10 deer on his land and pile them into a truck for registration with the DNR in Preston. Each animal will be tested for CWD, and the hope is no more of the disease will be found.

“I never thought I would see this situation with CWD,” he said. “It’s a wake up call, I guess. Maybe this stuff has been in the ground all along, and will always be. I just don’t know.

“I know this. My neighbors are all woodsmen, and I’m in the woods a lot. And I’ve never seen a dead or dying deer around here.”

Dennis Anderson •