Tougher hunting in Rusch’s 2020 deer season forecast

Snow on the ground starting in mid-October may still be there when deer hunters climb into stands on Nov. 7. DNR Tower area wildlife manager Tom Rusch gave the following forecast for hunters:
The 2020 16-day firearms deer season will begin Saturday, Nov. 7 and end Sunday, Nov. 22.
• A deer population that is below population goals in all areas rebounding from the severe winters of 2013 + 2014 and 2018, 2019 and 2020 in permit areas in Northern St. Louis and Lake Counties.
• The deer herd is below established population goals in all nine local permit areas (117, 118, 119, 130, 131, 132, 176, 177, 178).
• On the positive side, opening weekend deer hunting should coincide with peak rutting activity and deer movement during firearms season. The opening weekend of the 2020 firearms season should catch the “chasing phase” of the rut as bucks seek out receptive does during the first week.
• Breeding activity generally peaks in mid-November when the annual rutting season transitions into the reproductive phase and deer movement typically slows down.
• Bucks should be on their feet creating excellent deer activity through the first week of the deer season
• Field staff are reporting below average fawn reproduction in heavily forested areas for the third consecutive year. This is a result of back to back deep snow winters from 2018 to 2020.
• Tough winters combined with wolf predation result in increased deer mortality and poor fawn production. The Arrowhead region has endured a string of tough winters for whitetails. Historically, this has not occurred since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
• The 2020 deer season framework continues to be “conservative” in northern St Louis County, to protect adult breeding does and in turn increase population growth.
• Four permit areas are designated “Bucks Only”, 4 are “Lottery”with low permit numbers and 1 is “Hunters Choice”.
• Five (5) of the last 8 winters have been more severe than average, as measured by the DNR Winter Severity Index (WSI) in Tower. As a result, fawn production has been lower than it would have been with mild winters, crippling population recovery across our area.
• The Arrowhead region has endured a string of tough winters for whitetails with 15-40” of snowpack, from December into April (from 2013 to 2020).
• The winter of 2019-2020 was tough on the deer herd with 15-30 inches of snow from late-December through early March. A late winter crust increased wolf predation and taxed pregnant does.
• The majority of winter (late December into March) had 15” of snow which decreases deer mobility and increases wolf predation.
• Winter severity, predation and antlerless deer harvest are the most significant mortality factors in northern forest deer management, in that order. Good habitat is also critically important.
• The “Bucks-only” designation includes 118, 119, 130 and 132. These permit areas contain large contiguous blocks of forested habitat.
• The “Hunters Choice” designation is limited to just one permit area, 117, which is in the heart of the BWCA and core moose range. It has very low deer densities and the primary emphasis is moose management.
• The bag limit is 1 deer in all 9 local permit areas.
• Deer populations are highly variable across the area. Scouting in advanced, to find deer activity, will pay dividends. Deer observations and sign are not evenly distributed across the permit area. Experience has shown mobile stand hunters will find the most success.
• Generally, Hunters will not see many young deer, especially on heavily forested public land. Spikes and forkhorn bucks, last year’s fawns, will be much less common in the woods and on the game pole. These are 18-month old bucks that were part of the poor 2019 fawn crop.
• Hunters can plan for normal field conditions across the area. Although northern St Louis and Lake Counties experienced a severe drought from May through the 4th of July, late summer and fall precipitation has steadily changed field conditions. Standing water is common in low areas now. Low terrain will be difficult to access again 2020. Swamps, low areas and crossings are questionable for wheeled vehicles in many areas.