Did you see fewer deer during the Minnesota firearms season?
It wasn't by accident. And it could be what hunters should expect in the future.
Though weather might be to blame for some of this year's double-digit drop in deer kill in the recently concluded season, the real story is that there are fewer deer in many parts of the state. The Department of Natural Resources has been aiming its regulations to cut the herd - dramatically in some areas - and now some managers are acknowledging that the aggressive management has worked.
The northeast quadrant of the state is a good example.
"I can only speak for northeast Minnesota, but I think we're starting to see a change (with lower deer numbers)," said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids. "It's been subtle and slow, but it's pretty apparent this year."
In northeastern Minnesota, the deer kill is down 19 percent this year and the overall kill could be the lowest since 2002, based on preliminary registration from Electronic Licensing System stations. It could be the lowest buck harvest there since 1998.
The declines range from 13 percent around Grand Rapids to 25 percent and 26 percent, respectively, around Brainerd and Aitkin. The decline was expected at Brainerd and Aitkin because several permit areas there became "lottery" areas this year, meaning hunters had to apply for fewer antlerless permits.
Lightfoot said he believes poor weather on opening weekend played a role in the deer-kill decline in his region. Also, last winter was severe enough north of the Iron Range to kill fawns and maybe some adult deer, he said.
But the bottom line is there are fewer deer in northeastern Minnesota than a year ago.
Lightfoot described the northeastern herd as at a "crossroads," where it is declining closer to the DNR's goals. That might mean hunters will have to lower their expectations to where they no longer see "four or five deer a day," he said.
"If I were a Zone 1 northeast hunter, my advice would be to lower your expectations and think about what deer seasons were like five years ago before we saw the dramatic increase in deer numbers,'' Lightfoot said.
Hunters might wish they saw more deer this season, but that isn't how the DNR looks at current deer management. The agency has been aggressively issuing licenses in permit areas north of Interstate 94 to cut the herd. That strategy began several years ago when new deer goals were set.
Those goals were based on input from the public, and some of those people - foresters and vegetable growers, for instance - wanted lower deer numbers to lessen the impact on vegetation.
"Our public wanted the deer herd to be brought down to lower levels," Lightfoot said. "We heard in general to reduce it by 10 to 20 percent."
For the DNR, the ideal herd size for any individual permit area would put it in the lottery category. That means the DNR would allocate a limited number of antlerless permits through a computer lottery. Lightfoot said it is possible more northeastern areas would become lottery next fall.
He also suggested the October antlerless season could be dropped in parts of northeastern Minnesota next year.
Statewide, hunters had killed 167,645 deer as of Monday, down nearly 11 percent from the same period last year. The buck kill is down 6 percent, but the antlerless kill is down 15 percent.
Lou Cornicelli, the DNR's big-game program manager, said recently that this deer season could result in a top-10 harvest, perhaps even higher.
Deer managers have seemed almost surprised by the drop, and they'll be looking carefully at the numbers at their December and January meetings. But hunters shouldn't expect to see more deer in the future. The DNR wants to retain a firm grip on keeping the herd down to its preferred goal levels.