Minnesota, North Dakota deer season previews: Average or better season likely

Gone are the days -- for now, at least -- when northwestern Minnesota deer hunters could buy bonus tags to kill as many as five deer. But hunters in most permit areas across the northwest still can buy tags to take two deer.

Bucks like this Minnesota 8-pointer -- or 4x4, as North Dakota hunters would call it -- will be a prime target this coming weekend when deer season opens. North Dakota's deer season opens at noon Friday, and Minnesota hunters will take to the field Saturday morning. (Minnesota DNR photo)

Gone are the days -- for now, at least -- when northwestern Minnesota deer hunters could buy bonus tags to kill as many as five deer. But hunters in most permit areas across the northwest still can buy tags to take two deer.

The reason: Deer densities now are closer to management goals, and it's time to ratchet back a bit.

Minnesota's firearms deer season opens Saturday, and almost 500,000 hunters will take to the forests and fields in pursuit of the whitetail.

"If you look at what we've been doing for the last several years, especially up (in the northwest), we've been lowering deer densities to get toward our goal, and by and large, we're there," said Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul.

As recently as last year, the DNR classified many permit areas across the northwest as "intensive," which allowed a five-deer limit, with one buck, for those who bought the bonus licenses. Now, Cornicelli said, the DNR has switched most of the permit areas to "managed," which means a two-deer bag.


As always, only one of those deer can be a buck.

Social factors

According to Cornicelli, the DNR set its deer density goals in 2005. The goal isn't a specific number of deer per square mile but instead is based on social considerations, such as how many deer people can tolerate in terms of ag and forest damage, deer-vehicle collisions and similar factors.

"We don't manage deer anywhere in the state for the maximum number of deer the landscape can support, so we couch it in terms of other social factors," he said. "And in a lot of respects, we're there."

The impact of DNR efforts to trim deer herds was apparent last season, when hunters shot about 195,000 deer, a 32 percent success rate and the lowest tally in more than a decade. Minnesota has an estimated population of 1 million whitetails, Cornicelli said, and hunters this year have the potential to shoot at least as many deer as they did in 2009.

Minnesota's record harvest occurred in 2003, when hunters shot almost 291,000 deer.

Give him a choice, Cornicelli said, and he'd pick an opening day with a couple of inches of snow on the ground, a bite in the air, a temperature of 20 to 40 degrees, no wind and "certainly no rain."

Weather's crucial, he said, because almost half of the firearms deer harvest occurs during the first three days of season.


"I think unless the weather really goes crazy on us, we should have a pretty good to average deer season," Cornicelli said. "We've got as many 'managed' areas as last year and likely the same hunter numbers.

"We're not even remotely talking about record harvests, but we'll be in that 200,000 (deer) ballpark again."

For hunters in ag country, Cornicelli said, the good news is a corn harvest that's proceeding ahead of pace. Last year, he said, about 80 percent of the corn crop was still on the landscape the opening day of deer season and this year, it's just the opposite.

"It won't be an issue" this year and hunters won't have to deal with acres of standing cover," he said. "Last year, it was terrible."

Deep tradition

Regardless of whitetail populations, Cornicelli said, the one constant in Minnesota deer hunting is tradition. Unlike grouse or waterfowl, where participation tends to ebb and flow depending on game populations, deer hunter numbers have remained stable.

"We might sell fewer bonus permits, but we don't see a difference in the absolute number of people in a permit area," Cornicelli said. "The fact you can kill one deer vs. five doesn't motivate people to go. When you add all the numbers together, it doesn't make a difference.

"We'll have 450,000-plus out during the opening weekend of gun season."


There's more to the experience, in other words, than shooting a deer.

"All the surveys we've ever done show the actual killing of a deer is far down the list," Cornicelli said. "It's way below having the opportunity. It's below family. It's below nice weather. That's amazing."

Deer numbers might be down from their peak, but the potential for a good season is still there, Cornicelli said, even if hunters can't buy as many bonus tags.

"I think there's lots of opportunity, and where you are (northwestern Minnesota), bag limits are good," Cornicelli said. "Most people only kill one deer, so cross your fingers for good weather.

"I think it will be at least average, if not better."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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