ST. PAUL (AP) -- The halcyon days of Minnesota deer hunting are here.
If it gets any better, Department of Natural Resources deer managers really will start sweating.
Despite a relatively severe winter, Minnesota's whitetail herd grew significantly in 2001 for the fourth consecutive year. The population is so healthy, there may be some momentary flashbacks to 1992, when nearly half the state's hunters bagged a deer and set a harvest record.
That also was the year DNR managers issued a record number of permits, because they realized the herd was getting out of control.
''We're not at that point yet, but we're approaching it,'' said Steve Merchant, the DNR's forest wildlife program coordinator.
When coveted antlerless permits began showing up in the mail last week, more than 75 percent of hunters discovered they were successful in the lottery and would be able to kill a doe or a buck this fall. In regions where the herd is exceeding DNR goals, some hunters will have two, three or perhaps four tags in their pockets.
''We're trying to be pretty aggressive in managing the herd, even though we had what I'd call a moderately severe winter,'' said Dave Schad, DNR regional wildlife manager in Brainerd.
The severe winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97 are mostly distant memories for deer hunters. Despite losing nearly 65 percent of the herd in the forest region in those years, Minnesota's whitetail population has flourished in the past four years, causing many managers to worry about having too many deer rather than not enough.
The DNR's offering of 284,210 antlerless permits this year is the second only to the 322,000 available permits in 1992.
If 1992 was the benchmark by which to compare all the bad things associated with a huge deer herd -- the overgrazing of native vegetation, abundant deer complaints from farmers, serious increases in car-deer collisions -- then managers are keeping an eye on the current herd.
Already, Schad and his local wildlife managers face problems in the Brainerd and central-lakes region. New housing developments are creating refuges for growing deer herds. Schad said special archery hunts, similar to those used in the Twin Cities, are popping up in the Brainerd region.
''We'll have to take some of the things we've learned in the metro areas, such as the use of sharpshooters, and bring them to rural areas,'' he said.
In regions around Brainerd, antlerless permits were jacked up by 50 percent or more, and managers predict hunters this year will exceed the 1992 record harvest.
The situation is similar farther south. Near St. Cloud, in permit area 223, antlerless permits have jumped from 350 to 3,500 in just a decade. In Chisago, Isanti, Mille Lacs, Kanabec and Pine counties, deer herds are above goals set by the DNR. In some parts of that five-county area, hunters will be eligible to take up to five deer.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, managers conservatively trickled out antlerless permits, believing the herd needed to grow. But by 1992, it was evident that a conservative approach had contributed to an overabundance of deer.
Managers today are more willing to allocate more deer tags during upturns in the deer population because they realize how quickly the herd can expand.
''We don't have to look far to the east of us to see how difficult it is to lower deer herds,'' Merchant said. ''You look at Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York -- these are deer herds that can grow rapidly. We tend to be conservative (with tags), so we somewhat unknowingly facilitate the herd's growth.''
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