Their guns are silent, but Southeastern Minnesota hunters and landowners are sounding off on two contentious hunting regulations. One side argues the rules have improved the quality and controlled the number of Southeastern Minnesota deer herds. The other side says the rules have been ineffective, that they are unreasonable, have not diminished deer overpopulation, but diminished cherished hunting traditions.
Photo by Ray Faber
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) held a public meeting in Winona last month to gather public input from sportsmen, farmers, and others on the rules in question: antler point restrictions (APRs), which prohibit hunters from shooting bucks with less than four antler points on one side, and a prohibition on cross-tagging bucks, when a hunter uses his or her deer tag on a buck that someone else in the party has shot.
Those rules were implemented by the DNR in 2010 in order to better manage the deer population, by encouraging hunters to take does rather than bucks, and to increase the number of mature, big-rack bucks.
The DNR explained that by restricting the buck harvest through antler point and cross-tagging restrictions, hunters will be encouraged to shoot more does. Because females contribute more to population growth than males do, "shifting the harvest" from bucks to does, as DNR Big Game Program Coordinator Leslie McInenly put it, better controls deer populations.
Population control is the DNR's first priority, McInenly said, and achieving that by "shifting the harvest" is the primary purpose of the rules. She added that increasing the number of mature bucks, providing sportsmen with more bucks with large racks, was a "secondary goal."
Those rules expired this year, but the DNR is set to make a recommendation to the legislature as to whether to reinstate the rules this year.
The DNR has conducted random surveys, held public meetings and is currently receiving input from online surveys to gauge support for continuing the rules. The support is there, the DNR says, and it is poised to ask legislators to renew the rules. The department reports receiving 64 percent support from random survey responses, 60 percent support among landowners surveyed, 64 percent support from public input meetings, and 67 percent support so far from the online surveys.
Those numbers seem pretty clear, but individuals and organizations say despite support, the rules should not be continued. Opponents point to the rules' unclear results when it comes to their primary goal of increasing doe harvests, the problem of localized overpopulation and crop damage, property rights, and the impact of cross-tagging restrictions on the tradition of party hunting. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) and Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), another hunters' group, support voluntary efforts to increase the number of mature bucks rather than regulations.
It is hard to tell if a buck has enough points, Saint Mary's University Biology Professor Ray Faber argues in a letter to the editor. (See page 4a.) Deer are crepuscular—active at dawn and dusk—and hunters must spot them from a distance. In low light and from far away, it can be impossible to tell if a deer has the legal number of antler points. Conversely, hunters may shoot what they thought was a doe only to find it has a small horn. Antler point restrictions "make criminals out of people," argued a Winona County deer hunter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Deer populations vary drastically within Southeastern Minnesota, Rollingstone farmer Bob Marg said. There are spots where the deer population is three times the DNR's target of 15 deer per square mile, he explained, and that has an economic impact for landowners. Marg said that farms in his area have seen crop damage in excess of $10,000 in a single year from deer.
A Rochester DNR official said that when it comes to deer populations in Southeastern Minnesota, "the whole rest of the area could be at or below goal, but there are going be hot pockets." McInenly agreed that there are "localized issues," but that channels exist for land owners with "chronic problems" to get special hunting permits.
Some landowners argue they should have the right to decide how to manage deer on their own property.
"I don't think the government should step up and tell you what you can do," the Winona County hunter said.
"Where's the line there between what [the DNR] should be doing and what they shouldn't be doing?" asked deer hunter Ryan Johnson of Dakota. "It comes down to principle," he continued. "If it's something that I wouldn't want to walk over to my neighbor and tell him not to do myself, I don't think the DNR should be telling people to do it."
The restrictions on cross-tagging have seen slightly less public support than antler point restrictions in Winona and Houston counties, though still over 50 percent, DNR surveys report. The rule has little impact on the buck harvest and a big impact on party hunting, the Winona County hunter said. Hunting with family and friends is a tradition going back for generations.
"I would really like to see cross-tagging come back," Johnson said. "There's a lot of tradition out there, and I think it really takes away from the tradition of party hunting. If you're hunting as a party you're hunting as a unit, why break it up into individuals?"
"In my opinion it is a useless rule to save a minimal number of bucks," the Winona County hunter said. If individuals agree to share their deer tags, why should the DNR tell them they cannot? he argued.
The DNR expects to make its recommendation concerning APR and cross-tagging to Minnesota legislators this summer. It is still collecting input through its online survey, available at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/wildlife/input/sedeer/index.html.