Points North: On Deer Deficits and Dead Dogs

The Minnesota deer harvest has declined in the past two years.
The Minnesota deer harvest has declined in the past two years.

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When it came to northern Minnesota deer hunting, my father believed you took the good and the bad when it came to deer abundance. If Old Man Winter is kind for a year or two, whitetails are likely to be numerous in November. But in years when deer are decimated by snow and cold the previous winter, you have to hunt for your venison.

"When there's lots of deer, any jackass can shoot one," Dad would say. "And after a couple of good years, those jackasses expect to find a deer behind every bush, but it just doesn’t work that way in the woods."

Since November, there's been plenty of braying from some deer hunters and legislators regarding an apparent dearth of deer. Hunters from the northeast to the southwest complain they saw too few deer during last November's firearm season. The statewide harvest declined two years in a row. In 2011, Minnesota hunters killed 192,000 whitetails, down 7 percent from 207,000 deer in 2010.

Depending who has the floor, the deer deficit can be explained a number of ways. The DNR believes high winds across the state limited deer movements on the opener and led to a lower kill, because 50 percent of the total harvest typically occurs on opening weekend. Some hunters and legislators believe deer are fewer due to a DNR herd reduction strategy and marauding wolves. Whatever the reason, DNR officials, hunters and politicians seem to agree the state needs a few more deer.

Since the only way you can accurately count deer is by killing them, the annual hunting harvest is the official measure of deer abundance. DNR officials believe a harvest of around 200,000 whitetails is just about right for Minnesota. As in many states, Minnesota's deer management structure is designed to allow wildlife managers to respond to changes in deer abundance by increasing or decreasing the antlerless harvest. They can increase deer numbers by issuing fewer antlerless deer permits. Hopefully, managers can adjust antlerless harvest quotas and nudge the harvest upward within a year or two.

If not, the DNR may be pressured by politicians to re-evaluate its local deer management goals and perhaps raise them to appease hunters. The only problem is the present goals were set after gathering local public input from not just hunters, but from the community at large. While more deer may make hunters happy, others in the community who mostly see deer on the roads and in their backyards seem satisfied with the present level of deer abundance.

Actually, it’s a safe prediction deer hunters will see more whitetails in the woods next November. Deep snows last winter appeared to significantly reduce the 2011 fawn crop. Unusually mild weather this winter is almost certain to result in a bumper crop of fawns. If antlerless harvest quotas are reduced, a strong 2012 year-class will enter the state’s whitetail population.

It’s easy to forget just a few years ago, state deer populations were at an all-time high. That’s when the DNR convened its local public input process. Persons attending those meetings, including hunters, generally agreed the deer herd could be reduced, in some instances by 25 percent. It is easy to make such suggestions when deer are numerous. It is even easier to second-guess them when the goal is reached and deer seem scarce. So swings the pendulum of deer management.

Body-Grip Traps and Dogs

Just like Christmas, media reports about dogs being killed by body-grip traps come around every winter. And every year, the Minnesota DNR and trappers repeat the same tread-worn response, saying it is unusual for dogs to get caught in traps and it is up to dog owners to keep their pets under control during the trapping season. They say an informational page in the Minnesota Hunting Regulations booklet explains how to release a dog from a body-grip trap.

For those who are unfamiliar with them, body-grip traps are designed to close over the head of an animal and quickly kill it by breaking its spine or through suffocation. Body-grips are widely used by trappers to catch pine martens, fishers, raccoons, otters and beavers. In most situations, body-grip trap sets do not pose a risk to dogs or other non-target animals. The glaring exception is the mid-sized 220 body-grip, which the DNR allows to be used in baited ground sets for raccoons and fishers. These are the traps killing dogs.

According to news reports, at least six dogs were killed in 220 sets this fall. Many other states do not allow these traps to be set on the ground. In Minnesota, the 330 body-grip, which is the next size up and used for beaver, must be set in the water to avoid catching other animals. To prevent accidental lynx captures in northeastern Minnesota, 220s must be set in a box and recessed from the box opening at least seven inches. The area of the opening can be no than 50 square inches—basically a seven- by seven-inch hole. It’s pretty hard for a lynx or dog to stick its head into the opening and reach the trigger of the trap. Since this law has been in effect, I’ve seen far fewer reports of dogs being killed by traps in the northeast.

I own and use several dozen body grips of varying sizes. As for removing a body-grip trap once your dog is caught in it, lots of luck, even if you have the DNR diagram in hand. Only a strong person wearing gloves can squeeze open the springs on a 220. Using the rope method suggested in the diagram would only be slightly easier, especially since both you and the captured dog are likely to be highly panicked.

Trapping is widely accepted in Minnesota. Killing other people’s dogs by accident is not. Instead of blaming pet owners for not controlling their dogs, the DNR and trapping groups should show some respect for rural residents and hunters with dogs. It’s past time for the DNR Division of Wildlife and trappers to address this issue. Let’s see some sensible regulations for 220s before the next trapping season.

Airdate: February 3, 2012

Photo courtesy of Ben Edwards via Flickr.

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