DNR sees lots to like after first statewide youth deer hunt

The number of deer hunters has been declining for 10 years and the pastime can be a hard sell for young people. It’s usually really cold, and if no deer come by, it can be boring, too.

If new hunters don’t have fun the first time, they might never try again.

So this year, officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources opened up the whole state for youth hunting, instead of just a few regions. Kids ages 10 to 18 were allowed to hunt for free or for a few dollars over MEA weekend, Minnesota’s traditional four-day break from school in late October.

It worked. Nearly 30,000 young people took to the woods. Almost 6,000 or them shot a deer, the DNR said Monday. That’s a 50 percent increase in youth license sales, and a 77 percent increase in hunting success.

For DNR big game program leader Barbara Keller, this year’s youth hunt offered a glimmer of hope. Hunter numbers have been pretty grim for a long time.

“We haven’t seen the same drop off as other states,” she said. “But it has been declining, and we know that we’re approaching a cliff as the baby boomers start dropping out of the sport.”

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It’s hard to undersell just how much the DNR needs people to keep hunting. It’s the only way to control deer populations. Hunting licenses are also a massive source of funding for the DNR.

The trick, said Keller, is to replace those hunters as they age out of the sport. DNR officials did their best to make this year’s youth deer hunt easy and cheap.

Keller said they also picked a warm weekend.

“For our youth that means they might be able to spend more time in the deer stand,” she said. “With more time, they’ll see more deer, and harvest success is going to be a little better.”

If young people can shoot a deer their first time hunting, and not have to freeze while doing it, she said they’ll be hooked for a lifetime.