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COL Hunters talk, DNR listens

Survey data could bring changes to deer hunting regulations

It has a lot of numbers and charts, no plot, zero character development and no suspense -- yet it's one of the most fascinating documents I've read in years.

Last week the Department of Natural Resources released a report entitled "Minnesota Deer Hunters' Opinions and Attitudes Toward Deer Management," and it contains information that is tantalizing, encouraging and sometimes confusing.

The DNR hired an out-of-state company to perform the state's first in-depth look in 25 years at what deer hunters think about a wide array of issues. In all, the company surveyed 915 hunters, with about 100 respondents taken from each of the firearms zones and time slots, as well as archery, muzzleloader and multi-zone buck hunters.

You can view the survey results on the Web, though my browser didn't show the charts, just the scattered narratives that some questions have with them. DNR wildlife offices have paper copies of the report available, but allow yourself plenty of time to read the document: It's 307 pages long.

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Being new to deer hunting (I began bow hunting in 2000), I was curious to read how others viewed hunting and management.

What I found was that deer hunters are a diverse group, though we also have some things in common. In fact, we probably have more in common than we have differences.

Familiar ground

We're creatures of habit. The survey found 77 percent of surveyed hunters chose to hunt in an area because they had hunted it before.

The survey also found that we hunt for a variety of reasons. Some of us enjoy the sport (28 percent), companionship (27 percent) and being close to nature (16 percent). Oddly, just 5 percent of hunters said "tradition" is their main motivation, but I suspect that hunting with the same people year after year would go in the companionship column, but it also could be considered a tradition. What really made me grin was the measly 1 percent who said they hunt for the prestige.

And we aren't as dedicated to bagging that trophy buck as many hunting magazines would have us think. The survey found 46 percent of hunters shoot the first legal deer that offers a good shot. Only 13 percent hunt for a trophy buck throughout the season.

Enough antlers out there

As for big bucks, 58 percent said they heard of, or saw, enough big bucks, and 61 percent were satisfied with the quality of the bucks. But here's a small contradiction -- only 51 percent were happy with the number of adult bucks they saw.

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Perhaps the most fascinating result was about "deer quality." For the past decade, some hunters have been asking the DNR to go with some form of "quality deer management" to produce bigger bucks and more of them. But 53 percent of those surveyed said they weren't familiar with the concept of passing up on smaller bucks.

More interesting is how hunters defined a "quality deer" (they could agree to more than one answer). More than 80 percent said a buck with 8 or more points was a "quality deer," while 72 percent said a large doe could also qualify. Half the hunters said any antlered buck is a quality deer, and 41 percent said any legal deer is a quality deer.

Some of the responses showed patterns that were dependent on the type of hunting people were doing. For example, muzzleloader hunters, who hunt after the regular firearms seasons have concluded, were least satisfied with the number of adult bucks they were seeing.

Jack Heather, regional DNR wildlife manager, said he still hasn't had a chance to read, let alone digest, the glut of new information. But one number did jump out at him -- 91 percent of the deer hunters were very or somewhat satisfied with their 2000 hunting experience. "That tends to be a very significant number for us," he said.

Plenty of room

Also, he said crowding doesn't seem to be a major issue, and most hunters like the framework for seasons. One thing he'd like to know a lot more about was opinions of landowners and how they feel about deer or hunter numbers.

As managers examine more of the data, they will look for areas of that need change, such as regulating permanent tree stands on public land. Northern hunters are much more likely to support permanent stands, while those in the south are more likely to oppose them.

One frustrating part of the survey is that hunters seem split on several issues, which makes change difficult. Whatever the DNR decides, however, Heather said the first consideration will always be what is best for the deer herd.

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