ST. PAUL — Lawmakers and state regulators appear to be warming to the idea of eliminating shotgun-only deer hunting zones in Minnesota.

Officials said that given the resilience of the deer population, and recent advances in firearms technology, the zones might no longer be needed. And if legislation aimed at getting rid of them is approved, it would open southern and western Minnesota to rifle use for the first time in years.

State House representatives laid over their version of the zone elimination bill on Wednesday, March 11, meaning it could added into an omnibus bill for future consideration. Versions of the bill were introduced in both legislative chambers last year.

Shotgun-only zones have been used in Minnesota in one form or another for decades, though their boundaries have changed with time. They have less to do with hunter safety, officials said, than they do with deer population management.

So in an effort to protect herd numbers, state regulators began requiring hunters to only use shotguns loaded with slugs in certain parts of the state. The thinking was that they would make deer more difficult to hunt and kill.

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But Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, the House bill's leading sponsor, said that is no longer the case. Modern shotguns and handguns, certain types of which are also allowed in the zones, have range and power comparable to that of modern rifles.

"Current technology is moving in that general direction," Swedzinski said in a recent interview.

Minnesota Deer Hunters Association executive director Craig Engwall points out that many handguns can load and fire rifle rounds, further blurring lines. Some of the zones even allow rifles for coyote hunting.

All of which begs the question, Engwall said, of whether the rifle restriction on deer has outlived its usefulness.

"And it seems like in a lot of ways it has," Engwall said.

With neighboring states like Wisconsin having done away with their shotgun zones years ago, Engwall said recently, it might just be time for Minnesota to follow suit. He appeared next to Swedzinski to speak in favor of bill at Wednesday's House committee hearing.

In an earlier phone interview, he said support for the elimination proposal gained traction within the association last year. Local chapters of the group, of which there are more than 60, approved a resolution to advocate for a shotgun repeal by a split vote at an annual meeting, he said.

Engwall said that some members of the group who voted against the resolution did so out of concern for hunter safety. But the state Department of Natural Resources' stance on the bill, he said, is a sign that safety might not be at risk.

Swedzinski said the agency, which oversees fishing and hunting in the state, appears supportive of the bill. No DNR officials spoke for or against it on Wednesday.