Minnesota Antler Point Restrictions Spark Debate
by Chris Larsen
To listen to the full interviews with Steve Drazkowski and Marrett Grund, check out our podcast channel at Podbean or listen here:
Minnesota Antler Point Restrictions Under Fire Podcast With Steve Drazkowski
Antler Point Restrictions Podcast
With Marrett Grund:
In 2010, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources expanded what was a very small antler point restriction program to include most of Southeastern Minnesota in what is known as Zone 3 or the 300 Series area. The antler point restriction regulations made it mandatory for hunters to verify at least four antler points on one side of a buck’s rack before pulling the trigger. The idea is to protect yearling bucks and emphasize antlerless harvest. It is a strategy that has been successful in states like Missouri and Pennsylvania. Antler point restrictions(APR) were controversial in those states and now that controversy has come to Minnesota.
The Minnesota DNR conducted surveys of hunters in the years leading up to instituting APR and found that over 60 percent of hunters were in favor of management practices that promote bigger bucks. However, when asked about APR specifically, support dropped to just 48 percent.
Marrett Grund, deer ecologist for the Minnesota DNR is instrumental in the APR program in Minnesota. He is well versed in APR and it’s biological & political ramifications. He worked with Dr. Gary Alt, known as the father of antler point restrictions, in Pennsylvania. Grund understands that some people are unhappy, but believes that in time most hunters will be satisfied with the results. “The bucks that we protected this year have never been protected like that before. When they are two and a half years old about 92 or 93 percent of them will be legal to harvest. I think the hunters in years 2 and 3 in particular are really going to see a much different deer population. The buck harvest is going to be a little lower but the bucks that are harvested are going to have larger racks and look much different. I fully expect hunters to embrace this as they did in Missouri and Pennsylvania.”
By all accounts, many hunters are excited about the future of deer hunting in Southeast Minnesota. Others are less than thrilled. Minnesota assemblyman Steve Drazkowski opposes antler point restrictions and has introduced a measure to eliminate them from season parameters.
Drazkowski’s opposition is well founded. The antlered buck harvest predictably dropped. But the doe harvest statistics are surprising. The antlerless harvest was down nearly 20 percent. Meanwhile, the statewide deer harvest was up about seven percent. According to Marrett Grund, antler point restrictions are intended to not only create more quality bucks, but to lower the overall deer population through antlerless harvest. “What we’re trying to teach hunters is don’t shoot a small buck, shoot a doe.” Drazkowski counters, “If the intent of the regulations was to decrease the population of the deer herd in those areas, it sure seems that according to the numbers it failed.”
Drazkowski recently released a news column that was published in several Southeast Minnesota newspapers. He and many others believe the hunting rule book needs to be smaller, not bigger. “When you tell people you are going to limit their ability to take deer and that is going to somehow decrease deer populations, that doesn’t square up right with the world.“ Those expanded regulations and frustration among many deer hunters led to another problem, a sharp decline in hunter participation. More than 6% fewer hunters participated in the Zone 3 deer hunt while hunter participation in the rest of the state increased. The 2,400 hunters that declined to hunt this year may have been able to keep the antlerless harvest steady.
One of the more interesting parts of the rule change is the prohibition of cross tagging. In other words, a hunter can only tag a deer he or she killed. If a hunter only wanted to shoot one deer, this rule change would effectively rule him out of common late season activities such as deer drives. Hunters often engage in deer drives to help others fill their tags and their freezers. While diminished participation was probably a leading factor in the decrease in antlerless harvest, the cross tagging rule certainly had an effect. Drazkowski is calling for an end to antler point restrictions and the prohibition of cross tagging. But he is willing to compromise. “Our government is very good at using a stick and we need to introduce a carrot. That carrot might be to provide people who don’t take bucks with more opportunities to take does. Maybe provide people with a free license if they only take does… I’m hoping we find something that works partially for each side. It might be where the cross tagging restrictions stay in place but the antler point restrictions go away.”
However, if decreasing the size of the herd is one of the goals, this compromise would probably do the opposite. Perhaps a better compromise would be to eliminate the cross tagging regulations and keep antler point restrictions. Lowering the deer herd has become a greater priority after the discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) near Pine Island in Southeast Minnesota. CWD is an always fatal disease of the nervous system that is spread through saliva. It is found only in cervids such as deer and elk. The Pine Island case is Minnesota’s first. An extensive deer culling effort in the surrounding area over the winter found no other cases of CWD but deer managers will continue to keep a close eye on the area. In the nine square mile area around where the infected deer was harvested deer density was estimated at over 80 deer per square mile.
If deer densities continue to grow and more CWD cases are discovered, hunters could be faced with even more restrictive regulations such as Earn-A-Buck. Earn-A-Buck regulations require hunters to shoot an antlerless deer before shooting a buck. If hunters in Minnesota are frustrated with having to pass up small bucks, imagine passing up the buck of a lifetime because Earn-A-Buck requirements haven’t been fulfilled. It happens and it isn’t a good feeling.
Drazkowski makes a great point in that we shouldn’t be creating more roadblocks for hunters. More regulations complicate the hunting experience and make it difficult to introduce new hunters to the sport. But are we managing deer or deer hunters? Many state wildlife officials say both. Most game regulations have to find a balance between managing the species and the habitat while keeping hunters happy. Drazkowski says the debate comes down to two different objectives. “We’ve got a group of hunters who want more and larger bucks. We’ve got another group of hunters who want to retain their freedoms to hunt as they have on their land for generations.”
Drazkowski said he received dozens of phone calls on the issue and stated in his column that there is a petition against antler point restrictions with over one thousand signatures. Those are not huge numbers when you consider over 37 thousand hunters participated in the deer hunt in this portion of the state. Marrett Grund says he received some complaints as well. “Most hunters in the second season are used to seeing a lot of does and not a lot of bucks. This year they saw a lot of bucks that were usually harvested in the first season but they were not legal to shoot. And that can be frustrating. When interacting with hunters at check points the vast majority, whether or not they supported the antler restriction going into this year, are interested in seeing how this is going to shake out over the next couple of years.”
If you walk into any local tavern in traditional deer hunting states you will find someone who is disappointed with the current set of regulations. However, ideas are changing. Younger hunters are more interested in managing the herd. Marrett Grund believes regulations such as antler point restrictions will grow in popularity as more hunters realize the potential. “Hunters will begin to experience a much different deer population in years two and three. In the past 50 to 60% of the total buck harvest is comprised of yearling bucks. The average yearling buck has a 9.5” inside spread, basically a basket rack. A two and a half year old buck has over a 13” inside spread. It’s a much larger buck.”
Grund says the movement is growing throughout the country as many other wildlife management agencies deal with larger deer herds. “I think you are going to see an increasing number of regulations that deemphasize the harvest of small bucks.” Disagreements over deer regulations have been around as long as regulations themselves. Minnesota deer managers want to see more before putting a halt to antler point restrictions. “This is a regulation that we told hunters that we’re going to try for three years and monitor the success or lack thereof and make an appropriate management strategy for year four,” said Grund. The debate is likely to continue.