The Mysterious Case of Minnesota’s Disappearing Deer

For years, the Minnesota hunting community has wrung its hands when it comes to one apex predator: the timber wolf. 

Wolves famously require lots of deer to eat; the ratio is usually cited at or above 20 adult deer per wolf annually. Since their range has expanded greatly in the last 40 years, so has the controversy surrounding their presence.

Anecdotally, stories from frustrated hunters have become commonplace at this point—if not cliché. Readers of the Minnesota edition of Outdoor News should know, if they’ve so much as glanced at the letters to the editor. 

The Night Life

As it happens, I interviewed Ellen Candler, a wildlife researcher, a couple weeks ago for Outdoor News, to give a rundown of her recently-published study. Its premise was to explore whether the presence of wolves makes deer harder to hunt. 

Her team used corn as bait (in Michigan, where it is still legal in places for hunting), then measured the “vigilance” of deer at that bait, after introducing varied scents. Vigilance was measured through physical indications of how alert they were.

One of those scents was wolf urine, which they expected to cause heightened vigilance. In short, it basically had little effect. That is not to say nothing interesting came out of the study, however. 

What I thought was most intriguing and pertinent to hunters was that deer in the Upper Peninsula—where wolves are a constant presence—had more distinct periods of activity. Those in the Lower Peninsula had fairly irregular activity patterns throughout daytime and nighttime, whereas the U.P. deer tended not to show up to bait during the day. After researchers introduced wolf urine, U.P. deer avoided the low-light periods at the beginning and end of the day more than they previously had (presumably because they know wolves hunt actively during those times), essentially becoming even more nocturnally-oriented. 

In short, deer that live with wolves were far less active during daylight.

That got my attention. Though it would be hard to draw conclusions too broad from this study, from just six weeks, conducted over bait, it seems to speak to the instincts of these large prey animals. Surely, that one behavior could have a landscape-scale effect on the harvestability of the hundreds of thousands of deer that live with wolves in Minnesota, which would in turn affect deer management by stymieing harvest goals.  

I reached out to Barb Keller, big game program leader with Minnesota DNR to ask for a reaction to this study, even attempting to bring that point to her attention. She basically declined to respond, writing, “I don’t think we can say anything about how this relates to MN deer hunting when the research was conducted in a state that allows baiting, and is centered around deer activity at bait sites.” 

It was hard to believe that somebody who lives and breathes deer management would brush the study off completely. Perhaps she either didn’t read the study, or was reluctant to touch anything related to the wolf-deer dynamic (pretty much the third rail of wildlife management in this state). I suspected the latter. 

Connecting Dots

Without clues from state wildlife management, I could only wonder if day-shy deer could be responsible for less-than-stellar annual harvests in Minnesota, which have trended downward overall since the 2003 high mark. There are many possible contributors to that, however, including declining license sales.

Then it hit me: evidence of altered deer behavior might be readily available. Hidden in plain sight, if you will. 

Remember those wolf-weary letters to the editor I mentioned? They almost universally include two things: their writers hunt in wolf range, and they literally say they don’t see deer anymore. These letters have become so ubiquitous that their language now reads like it’s plucked from a list of stock phrases. Here are some examples from just the last two weeks:

“seen 12 [wolves] this calendar year but not a deer with 14 days in the woods this season.”

“The past few years I felt lucky if I saw even one deer.”

“…not able to even see a deer to take a shot at.”

Most of them also orbit around the same conclusion: there are “no deer left in northern Minnesota” because of wolves. 

Personally, I don’t subscribe to that. For one thing, around our family cabin—not historically rich with deer by any stretch—there is plenty of deer sign in all seasons. Browsing is heavy in places. Beds, rubs, and scrapes are abundant. Fresh tracks appear in dirt or snow every morning. Sightings, on the other hand, are remarkably few and far between.  

So, is it possible the reason people believe so fervently that deer have all but disappeared in northern Minnesota is because those deer have become more nocturnal? 

It’s so simple and makes so much sense, it almost hurts. But if that’s the case, who is going to show it, and how? What entity would take that on? I can’t even conceive of a method that could prove or disprove that idea.  

Additionally, who would believe it? Mistrust of the DNR and scientific community is deep, and hatred of wolves is firmly seated. It would be a hard sell for anybody who is in the position to collect, analyze, and present credible data. 

Beside all that, if evidence for tough deer hunting ultimately points back to wolves, does that really change anything? Whether deer are extirpated or simply nocturnal, it doesn’t help hunters notch their tags.

The situation seems a bit hopeless at this point. I only hope to live long enough to see people write letters to the editor about other things. 

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