On March 3, 2016, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources wildlife managers announced, “A realignment of a handful of permit areas in northeastern Minnesota won’t bring with it further deer population reductions.”
During discussions concerning what to do to halt the decline of moose numbers in northeastern Minnesota, it has often been said our whitetails are recent invaders of moose ranges in our state. I disagree. Fossil discoveries reveal ancestors of our whitetails existed in North America 3 million years ago and Asian moose did not migrate across the connecting land mass between Siberia and Alaska to our continent until 35,500 years ago. There were an estimated 30 million whitetails living on our continent in the 1500s (well before Europeans began to settle in North American), mainly east of the Mississippi River and north into Canada. Obviously, North American whitetails have lived in northeastern Minnesota for hundreds of years, possibly even thousands of years.
Beginning in the late 1880s, our rapidly growing American human population created an insatiable demand for Minnesota’s white pine lumber. By 1900 more than two-billion feet of America’s white pine had been cut, mostly by our country’s four largest mills, three of them in Minnesota. The demand for our white pine lumber continued until 1929 when the world’s largest lumber mill located in the town of Virginia in northeastern Minnesota finally ran out of white pines.
All this logging, of course, created ideal habitat for whitetails and moose. Capable of doubling in numbers annually, whitetails soon dominated northeastern Minnesota’s newly emerging spruce, balsam, white cedar and aspen forests.
Northeastern Minnesota became my personal favorite area for hunting and fishing in 1950. Back then, whitetails were routinely seen in great numbers all along the Gunflint Trail and connecting backwoods roads from Grand Marais to the Canadian Border. Resorts in this area such as Clearwater Lodge enjoyed a thriving business during November deer hunting seasons, their walls then displaying photos of large groups of smiling hunters kneeling before 15–20 deer. Deer hunters were even entertained with live polka music in the spacious Clearwater Lodge dining room at that time. Similarly, live music was also a annual feature at Bundy’s Wayside Inn during deer seasons, located halfway between Orr and Crane Lake at the opposite end of northeastern Minnesota’s Arrowhead Region. Between Duluth and International Falls, whitetails were then especially plentiful, up to 22 deer per square-mile not uncommon.
Unfortunately, a series of severe winters in the mid-1960s practically wiped out whitetails in the two eastern-most counties of northeastern Minnesota, Lake and Cook Counties, and substantially reduced whitetails in St. Louis County as well. North Shore and Gunflint Lake citizens can be credited with providing food that saved the few surviving deer that finally begin repopulating Lake and Cook counties until 1972, after which newly protected grey wolves began to increase in numbers. Since then, wolves and severe winters have kept whitetails from recovering to more than half of their original numbers. Recent MDNR surveys reveal there as few as 2–4 deer per square-mile in parts of this region today. From being one of Minnesota’s very finest deer hunting regions, northeastern Minnesota east of Highway 53 between Duluth and International Falls has become a region of our state least populated by whitetails. And sadly, because late-comer moose are not yet fully adapted to living with brain worms like our resident whitetails and because cold country moose may even be discovered as unfortunate victims, like arctic polar bears, of human-induced climate change, caring for declining moose in this region has taken precedence over sound management of whitetails. Whereas a deer numbers will now be allowed in increase in a few counties west of Highway 53, the newly designated moose management area, virtually the entire area east of Highway 53, will be managed for current (low) numbers of deer.
Fortunately, remaining whitetails inhabiting this region today are tough and amazingly adaptable. They have survived despite more than four decades of year-round hunting by overwhelming numbers of grey wolves protected by the Endangered Species Act and misinformed federal judges. They have survived despite potentially fatal infestations of brain worms and other parasites. They have survived despite winters of minus-40-degree temperatures and hip-deep snow. They have survived despite well-intentioned management by humans. Decades after all is said and done, there is therefore no doubt in my mind these especially elusive and resilient deer will still be living in my favorite hunting area in northeastern Minnesota.