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Hunt clubbed? Stricter rules, fewer deer for Minnesota hunters

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Deer hunting
Hunters will take to the woods Saturday for opening day of the firearms deer season. Here, a hunter walks toward his camp during a 2010 outing near Grand Rapids, Minn.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune via AP 2010

Doug Appelgren plans to spend the next nine days hunting deer on his 160 acre homestead near Big Fork, Minnesota, in northern Itasca County. He also plans to leave the woods empty-handed. 

"I have low expectations this year," he said.

Applegren will be among nearly 500,000 hunters expected to hit the woods this weekend for the start of Minnesota's 2014 firearms deer hunt. For many, the hunt is a tradition rivaling Thanksgiving or Christmas. But tighter regulations intended to rebuild the state's deer herd will mean many hunters may bag nothing more than a lovely walk in the woods.

The new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources rules will make this hunting season one of the most conservative since the 1990s. In 95 percent of the state, hunters will only be able to take one deer, and they'll have to hope for a buck, since most antlerless tags are on a lottery system. 

That and other changes will cut this year's deer harvest to as low as 120,000 — 50,000 fewer than last year and down dramatically from the peak of 290,000 in 2003, according to Steve Merchant, the DNR's wildlife populations and regulations manager. 

Those higher past kills, coupled with severe winters the last two years, have reduced deer populations. In February, for the first time in several years, DNR officials approved emergency spending to feed white tail deer in northeast Minnesota. 

Given last winter's harsh conditions and the concerns of hunters over deer numbers, DNR felt the need to restrict the fall hunt. Fewer hunters will shoot a deer, or even see one. 

"It's going to be significant," Merchant said. 

Appelgren, interim president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said hunters asked for the conservative harvest. He and his members have seen fewer and fewer deer in the woods over the last few years and they were concerned. 

"When I walked out to check my deer stands a couple weeks ago," he said. "I saw more wolf tracks than I saw deer tracks."

Appelgren at least, doesn't mind a bad year. Actually shooting a deer, he said, is one of the smaller parts of deer hunting.

"I've often said, if I knew ahead of time that I wasn't going to get a deer, I'd still be out there," he said. "It's really a time that you set aside, that you turn off the phone and sit in the woods."

What's new for this fall's deer hunt?

Here's a look at some of the new regulations Gov. Mark Dayton — who hosts the Governor's Deer Opener on Saturday in Bemidji — and other hunters will face:

• A one deer per hunter limit in 95 percent of the state. That's a major change from past years, where in many areas hunters could harvest up to five.

• It will also be much tougher to hunt a doe. In about half the state's permit areas, hunters will have to enter a lottery for a permit to shoot a doe, and in some places, including all of northeast Minnesota, only bucks can be shot.

• In 69 of Minnesota's 128 deer permit areas, hunters must be chosen in a lottery to shoot an antlerless deer.

• Only bucks can be hunted in 14 areas.

The DNR released this video for the coming hunt: