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Deer numbers could be matter of perception

How good or how bad the 2011 firearm deer hunting season was for folks in central Minnesota is still in question.

With official figures still on the way, the perception of many is that the deer migrated to some other state.

Department of Natural Resources Assistant Wildlife Manager Rob Rabasco of Park Rapids is not so sure there is a shortage.

Rabasco hunted 13 hours over a two-day period and never saw a deer. He did not go with the idea he would see a lot of deer even though he has passed them up in past seasons.

The first two days of the 2011 firearm season, which are traditionally two of the best and always hunted very hard, were sunny but very windy. Deer lay down in heavy wind.

The reports Rabasco has received from the nine-day season vary greatly. He is not surprised if younger hunters were disappointed with the number of deer they saw during the 2011 firearm season, especially if they joined the hunting ranks in 2002. From 2002-2007 Minnesota deer hunters harvested more than 200,000 deer annually.

In 2001 as the deer hunting boom in Minnesota was beginning hunters in the Wadena area were among the most successful in the state averaging 6.5-10.3 deer per square mile. In 2010 they were still among the most successful but they were taking 5.3-8.9 deer per square mile.

"As one guy said to me 'we have really high expectations now,'" Rabasco said.

The Minnesota DNR uses a winter severity index to give them an idea of what kind of hunting season they can expect. The state had some light winters when the herd was increasing in size. The winter of 2010-2011 was not one of those mild ones. In addition to hunting and winter, deer have to contend with predators and vehicle conditions. One DNR estimate has pegged deer mortality to predation and motor vehicles at 100,000 per year.

Rabasco feels older deer hunters who complain of not seeing a lot of deer might be guilty of short memories. The DNR closed the season completely in 1971 after heavy winters and hunting pressure left the state herd in poor shape. With the approval of the state legislature, the DNR went to a permit system for deer hunting in 1976 and restricted the number of antlerless deer that were taken by hunters. Over the next 20 years the deer herd in the state tripled in size and threatened to get out of control.

Where hunters find deer still varies greatly. Hunters in southern Minnesota had to apply for antlerless permits this year. Others could purchase bonus tags that would allow them to take up to five deer.

"People need to change their expectations," Rabasco said.