Maps reveal where deer hunters struck big, and struck out
Efforts to reinstate a Minnesota wolf hunt continue to gain steam on the heels of what, for some, was a disappointing deer season.
Hunters For Hunters, a newly formed advocacy group, has been holding meetings across the state to drum up support for the cause. Their arguments are heavy on anecdote: tales of failed hunts, disappearing deer and wolf prints in the snow feature heavily in their discussions. The impression they give — echoed by sympathetic media and political figures — is that northern Minnesota deer are on the verge of going extinct.
The latest state data on the 2023 deer hunt paint a considerably more nuanced picture. In some parts of Minnesota’s wolf country the deer harvest is down, often considerably so. But in others, hunters actually had more success this year.
This is a map of the 2023 deer harvest through December 4. While not yet finalized, the Department of Natural Resources estimates that these figures reflect about 95% of the eventual tally for the year.
The map is divided into the state’s deer permit areas. The DNR sets individual harvest limits for each area based on the size and health of the estimated deer population. When a hunter makes a kill she must register it with the state and note which permit area it was taken from.
The map shows that hunters in central Minnesota have had considerable success this year, with most permit areas in the region posting kill counts above 2,000. Part of that region extends well into the southern portion of Minnesota’s wolf country, delineated by the thick black line on the map.
It’s a different story in the farthest reaches of the Arrowhead, however, with some permit areas showing deer harvests in the low double-digits.
The size of the harvest in any given area is partly a function of how many hunters are active there. A low harvest may be due to a lack of deer, a lack of hunters, or both. These figures unfortunately don’t account for how many hunters were active in each area — that data won’t be compiled until next year. Statewide about 3% fewer deer licenses were sold in 2023, a continuation of a longstanding trend.
But we can compare the year-over-year change in harvest in each permit area, which can give a sense of whether 2023’s numbers are a departure from normal.
This map shows that harvest numbers are down across most of the state, both within wolf country and without. The sharpest declines, notably, are in the northeast where wolves are most abundant. But as researchers and regulators have repeatedly pointed out, those declines are first and foremost a function of the region’s recent spate of harsh winters. Habitat loss also plays a role, as does wolf predation.
On the other hand, harvest counts actually increased in a number of permit areas. Many of those areas are in the north, deep in wolf country.
These numbers illustrate the limits of the anecdotal reports coming from supporters of a wolf hunt. Those reports may very well be accurate at the individual level. But in some parts of the north, hunters actually shot more deer in 2023 than they did the previous year.
Overall, the DNR’s preliminary numbers show that hunters in northeast Minnesota harvested over 31,000 deer in 2023. That figure is down from the 34,000 killed the prior year. But it’s a far cry from the devastation suggested by would-be wolf hunters’ tales.