Published September 09, 2012, 12:00 AM

Bowhunters quietly thin Duluth’s deer population

Sam Cook column: My wife came in from her flower garden the other day after we had returned from a four-day trip. “Well, the deer are now eating my gladiolus and impatiens and snapdragons,” she announced.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

My wife came in from her flower garden the other day after we had returned from a four-day trip.

“Well, the deer are now eating my gladiolus and impatiens and snapdragons,” she announced. “And they bedded down in the back of the garden on my lilies and my irises.”

That kind of story is familiar to most of us who live in Duluth. White-tailed deer are still too numerous, too hungry and too brazen for those who try to grow unprotected gardens or landscape with ornamental trees.

But Duluth would be far worse off if the city had not conducted a bow hunt for deer within city limits for the past seven years. So far, a total of 3,777 deer have been taken during those seven years, and about 84 percent of them were antlerless deer (either does or fawn bucks). Each fall in recent years, more than 300 hunters have paid their $25 fee and passed shooting proficiency tests to take part in the hunt.

The city hunt, conducted by the Arrowhead Bowhunters Alliance, continues to be a terrific bargain for city taxpayers. The group, a handful of dedicated volunteers with a passion for bow hunting, coordinates the hunt, holds a lottery to place hunters in zones throughout the city, takes registrations, keeps detailed hunt statistics and helps hunters recover the occasional wounded deer.

In seven years, no accidents involving the public have been reported. In most zones, hunters are required to hunt from elevated tree stands. No doubt many of us have walked our dogs or gone hiking on city trails where hunters have been sitting in trees, and we’ve been completely oblivious to their presence.

Hermantown has long allowed deer hunting within its city limits, and Two Harbors started a city bow hunt last year. Superior, using a slightly different strategy, also counts on bow hunters to thin its deer herd.

Using qualified bow hunters to take deer silently and without incident remains the most cost-effective way to keep urban deer herds in check.

The public’s primary criticism of the Duluth hunt is that hunters aren’t taking enough deer. Some residents won’t be satisfied until deer are no longer a threat to gardens or traffic, but that day is unlikely to come, despite hunters’ best efforts.

As Rich Staffon, now-retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager, told the News Tribune in 2011, “I think people in Duluth need to realize that the deer are here to stay. We can hopefully reduce the numbers to a more tolerable level. But people in Duluth are going to have to learn to plant things that deer don’t like or put up fences.”

Although all city bow hunters must take at least one antlerless deer before taking a buck, some critics still maintain the hunt is primarily a trophy deer hunt. Certainly, most of the hunters who take part hope to shoot a buck, and preferably one with a big set of antlers. That’s also the hope of most firearms hunters who go into the woods each fall.

But with the requirement that hunters take at least one antlerless deer before taking a buck, the city is ensured that a lot of adult breeding does will be removed each fall. It seems a reasonable trade-off to allow hunters to take a buck for their efforts to cull the herd.

Hunt records indicate that it is getting harder to take deer in the city hunt. City hunters averaged about 1.5 deer each last year, down from the seven-year average of about 1.8 per hunter.

This year, for the first time, hunt organizers and the Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank are cooperating to make it easy for hunters to donate deer to people who need food in our area.

This fall’s city hunt opens Saturday, the same day as the statewide deer bow-hunting season. About 360 hunters have registered for the hunt.

They may not take the deer that’s bedding in our garden. But quietly, they’re performing a valuable service to the city.

Sam Cook is an outdoors writer and columnist for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at “twitter.com/samcookoutdoors.”

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