Deer diary: Herd levels out
With the firearms deer season about to begin, Don Nelson has a lot to think about.
The area Department of Natural Resources wildlife supervisor knows that there are many "unofficial deer refuges" in the region where deer are safe from hunters. They congregate there, producing an overpopulation that raids neighboring fields. That makes farmers unhappy, and they complain to the DNR about crop losses.
But in the long term, Nelson has other things that worry him even more, with hunter demographics being high on the list. Hunters are getting older. As the 65- and 70-year-olds stop hunting, fewer young hunters are taking their place, he said. That trend could mean serious deer number problems in the next few decades, he said. "We are going to be challenged in this part of the state to keep a lid on the deer," he said.
Coyotes take a few fawns and vehicles kill some deer, but in this region hunters are the top predators of deer and are the key players in the constant struggle to control the herd. .
For several years, the region got a hint of what could happen when deer numbers climbed much too high in some of the region's permit areas. The DNR allowed hunters to register up to five deer in parts of Winona and Houston counties, though few shot that many.
Statewide, the push to kill more deer was successful. In 2003, hunters set a record with 290,525 deer, but the state's herd of about 1 million deer can't sustain that, said DNR Wildlife Research Manager Lou Cornicelli. The harvest this year should be just above 200,000, which would be about the same as last year and what the herd can sustain, he said.
The DNR will reconsider goals for individual permit areas every five to seven years to find out what landowners and hunters want, he said.
Overall, deer numbers are getting closer to goal in many areas, Nelson said. That's not to say there still aren't some overpopulated hotspots, he said. "Those are areas that are causing us some heartburn yet," he said.
In some places in Houston County, owners of large tracts of woods don't allow hunting, or they only shoot mature bucks, leaving a lot deer that feed in nearby farmland, he said.
One block of at least 1,000 acres is off limits to all hunting, he said. "The neighbors are taking it on the chin with deer damage," he said. One neighbor with about 350 acres is near that "refuge" welcomed hunters who shot 50 deer on his land. He asked for and received depredation permits to shoot 50 more, Nelson said.
Overall, though, "in most areas, I think we're closer to goal," Nelson said. That was why this year, there was no early antlerless season in the region. That season came about a few years ago to help thin the herd, but this year it was deemed unnecessary.
Some people are worrying about aging habitat in parts of this state and other states because older habitat means less food for wildlife. But Nelson isn't concerned about the southeast. Mature oak forests mean more acorns that deer love. And deer get most of their food from corn and beans, he said.
"Our deer habitat is so good in this part of the state that it's all we can do is to take care of the herd," to keep it from growing too fast, he said.