Published November 24, 2009, 03:02 PM

Low deer numbers have Minnesota hunters crying wolf

Minnesota’s firearms deer harvest was down 20 percent in the northeast, and many hunters blame wolves.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Minnesota’s firearms deer harvest was down 20 percent in the northeast, and many hunters are raising an old cry: Wolves are the problem.

“Wolves have been the number one topic,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association at Grand Rapids.

With 98 percent of deer registrations reported across Northeastern Minnesota, the 2009 deer harvest is down 20 percent from last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. And last year’s harvest was down about 20 percent from the 2007 harvest.

Across the northeast, registrations were down as much as 39 percent in the International Falls area and as little as 10 percent in the Cloquet area, according to DNR figures.

Overall across the region, the adult buck harvest was down 6 percent, and the antlerless deer harvest was down 33 percent. Minnesota’s firearms deer season ran from Nov. 7 through Sunday.

“This is a pretty dramatic decline,” said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids. “When you put this year coupled with last year, which was pretty similar, it’s a pretty significant drop.”

Over the past few years, the DNR, based on public input, has been trying to lower deer populations across much of Northeastern Minnesota. That has been done to reduce impact on forests and car crashes with deer as well as to decrease deer predation on gardens and shrubs.

The winter of 2008-2009, especially across then northern tier of the state, was harsher than most other recent winters, causing significant deer mortality, DNR wildlife managers say.

But hunters are focusing on wolves.

“They are a factor,” Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “How big a factor they are is another question.”

The state’s wolf population is estimated at 3,000, give or take several hundred, said DNR wolf and furbearer biologist John Erb in Grand Rapids. The wolf population is not thought to be growing rapidly.

“It’s always possible that things can vary locally,” Erb said, “but if you want my one generalization, it’s that data continues to suggest that wolves do not have any negative regulative effect [on deer populations] — that means causing decline — from one year to the next.”

Erb bases that in part on long-term studies of radio-collared deer in an ongoing DNR study by Glenn Del Giudice, DNR deer biologist at Grand Rapids.

Erb thinks that perhaps hunters, by shooting lots of antlerless deer in recent years, have helped reduce the deer population.

“What has been our goal in the past few years? To reduce the deer population,” he said. “It may be that hunters have been quite successful in doing what DNR managers wanted them to do.”

The DNR’s Lightfoot said wildlife managers will review deer-population goals in the coming winter and spring. Johnson thinks hunters may have forgotten that goals were to reduce the deer herd.

“Are people saying that the deer population is too low — yes…” Johnson said. “Our interest in decreasing the deer herd extends until it affects our individual hunt.

“Similarly, it is pretty obvious that the public tolerance of increasing and expanding wolf numbers is nearing its limits in part because of lower deer numbers, but also due to more wolf sightings and caution caused by reports of more aggressive wolf behavior.”

Hunters want a hunting season on wolves, Johnson said.

“It’s a big-game species. It should be managed as a renewable resource,” he said.

For now, though, wolves remain protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.