Rusch unveils 2021 deer season forecast

Retiring DNR area wildlife manager Tom Rusch unveiled his 2021 deer season forecast. The 16-day firearms deer season will begin Saturday Nov. 6 and end Sunday Nov. 21.
Rusch is forecasting a deer population that is below population goals across the area. Populations continue to rebound from the severe winters of 2013, 2014 and 2018, 2019 and 2020 in northern St. Louis and Lake Counties.
Wildlife managers are reporting the deer herd is below established population goals in all nine local permit areas (109, 118, 119, 130, 131, 132, 176, 177, 178).
The opening weekend of the 2021 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 hooves creating excellent deer activity through the first week of the deer season. However, hunting pressure often pushes this activity nocturnal
Field staff are reporting fawn reproduction is highly variable across the work area following the mild winter of 2020-21. Strong fawn reproduction is the key to recovery for a rebounding herd.
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 with 15-40” of snow which is the key driver for white-tailed deer mortality.
This year again, hunters will notice doe tags are limited. Here’s why:
• The 2021 deer season framework continues to be “conservative” in northern St Louis and Lake County, to protect adult breeding does and in turn increase population growth through fawn production.
• Deer populations are highly variable across the area. Scouting in advanced, to find deer activity, will pay dividends. Deer are not evenly distributed across the permit area. Experience has shown mobile, stand-hunters who move as the forest changes, will find the most success.
Four permit areas are designated “Bucks Only” and five are “Lottery” with low permit numbers. Five of the last nine 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 and wolf predation has been higher than it would have been with mild winters, stagnating 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) 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 “Lottery” designation includes deer permit areas 176, 177, 178, 109 and 131. These permit areas are at the low end of population goals. Deer density varies significantly across these permit areas with private land generally holding higher deer numbers. The lottery deadline was Sept. 9 and all permits have been distributed.
The “Bucks-only” designation includes 118, 119, 130 and 132. These permit areas contain large contiguous blocks of forested habitat. The population in these permit areas are below goal and limited by poor quality winter cover which is impacting survival in tough winters.
The “Hunters Choice” designation is limited to just one permit area, 117, which is in the heart of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness and core moose range. It has very low deer densities and the primary emphasis is moose management.
The bag limit is one deer in all nine local permit areas.
Bonus permits cannot be used in any of these permit areas. Bonus permits are legal when the population is above population goals and the deer permit area is designated Managed or Intensive.
Deer population recovery takes time and milder winters in forested habitats. Local populations always vary within the larger permit areas.
Deer populations are generally higher in permit areas to the west and south of Tower (176, 177 and 178) with mixed fields and forests and lowest in permit areas to the east and north (109, 118, 119, 130, 131 and 132) with contiguous forest.
Fawn production is always greater in 176, 177 and 178 because of the availability of agricultural fields and earlier spring green-up following tough winters. Field reports from 2021 found mixed results with does observed with 0, 1 or 2 fawns. Twins were most often observed on private lands and fields. No fawns were most often observed in large contiguous forested areas.
Permit areas 176, 177, and 178 are the most productive areas in the Tower Area and account for the majority of the annual deer harvest. Hunters will likely see and harvest a few more deer in these permit areas than they did in recent years due to the mild winter of 2020-21.
Permit areas 119, 118, 117, 130, 131, 109 and 132 are less productive with rocky, thin or wet soils. Hunters will likely see about the same number of deer in these permit areas. Fawn production has been below average, generally with single or no fawns observed with adult does. As a result of lower fawn production (twinning rates) and poorer habitat, population recovery takes longer in these permit areas.
Hunters can plan for fairly normal field conditions across the area.
Although northern St Louis and Lake Counties experienced a severe drought from May through August, Fall precipitation has steadily changed field conditions. Lakes, streams and beaver pond water levels continue to be very low.
With more recent precipitation, swamps and low areas are again holding water. Use discretion…rutting ruins the access for everyone.
Fire conditions have also improved dramatically with recent rain. Tower and Hibbing areas were both rated “low” in mid-October.
Wolf population levels are abundant across the area generally being higher in better deer areas.
Deer Registration
In 2021, hunters can again register their deer 3 ways:
• On-line ,
• By phone (888/706-6367)
• Or at the traditional walk-in registration stations.Check your deer license for the phone number or internet address.
Know your permit area ( before you register. Click on the state map and then zoom into your permit area.