Too many deer in forests?

By Joe Albert

Staff Writer

St. Paul – As one part of the certification of 4.7 million acres
of the state’s forests, forest and deer managers have something to
prove by this fall. They must show they have a plan to ensure deer
populations won’t hinder forest regeneration. One of the two audits
– that of Forest Stewardship Council – said that’s a problem in
certain areas of the state.

The report says: ‘Make sure your deer densities are in line with
what the habitat can support long-term,’ said Marrett Grund, DNR
deer project leader at Madelia. ‘That’s ultimately what we want to
do anyway.’

Grund has unique insight into the issue – he spent three years
in Pennsylvania, where deer are blamed for an almost complete lack
of forest understory.

The audit calls on the DNR to demonstrate how ongoing efforts to
set deer population goals will ensure those targets jibe with a
healthy forest ecosystem. It also asks the DNR to show how deer
density information – as well as how that density relates to forest
vegetation – and management tools like bonus tags are used to keep
deer populations at certain levels.

‘We believe we’ve got, and the auditors I think generally
agreed, we had measures in place to address the issue, but they
want to make sure the measures are working,’ said Dave Schad, DNR
Fish and Wildlife Division director.

DNR Assistant Commissioner Brad Moore said the actions the
report called for are consistent with the DNR’s plan to rethink
deer population goals.

‘We’ve already been on (this) course in terms of re-thinking and
constantly evolving our deer management program,’ he said.

Last year, the agency began a process to set deer population
goals in three areas of the state. The people involved in the
goal-setting included a variety of deer stakeholders such as
hunters, farmers, and environmentalists. The DNR presents
information to the group, but doesn’t have a say in the population
goal.

Most groups so far have called for deer numbers to be decreased
by at least 25 percent. Ultimately, though, numbers of deer in an
area are the DNR’s call. Goal-setting is scheduled this year for
additional areas of the state, including the remainder of the
forested region.

Part of the auditor’s motivation is making sure the outcomes of
the goal-setting are reasonable, and that the DNR isn’t stacking
the deck with one interest or another, said Steve Merchant, DNR
forest wildlife program leader.

‘(Auditors want) assurance that we are up to snuff on the issue
and that we are making a real and genuine effort to include all the
stakeholders in this issue,’ Merchant said.

The DNR is in the process of gathering information on deer
density and how it relates to forest ecosystems as part of a study
in Itasca State Park (The project began before the forest
certification audit.) The goal of that study is to collect
vegetation data and develop protocol to help determine when deer
densities are out of line, Grund said.

‘Deer and vegetation is an issue all across the country, but
less so here,’ Schad said. ‘We have been fairly aggressive in
managing deer populations and fairly successful at keeping a lid on
deer populations.’

But if the agency were to back off on population management,
there could be severe ecological harm, Schad said.

Mark Johnson, Minnesota Deer Hunters Association executive
director, isn’t concerned about what the forest certification
documents are asking for.

While the documents don’t request particular action – like
killing a certain number of deer – they hold the DNR accountable
for keeping ecosystem and the deer herd in balance.

‘It doesn’t mean we are going to have to necessarily knock down
the deer population in all areas,’ Johnson said. ‘Most people would
agree we have a fairly large if not overabundant deer population in
some areas of the state.’

Grund said a policy of balance between deer populations and
forest ecosystems is vital to the future of deer hunting in the
state, since forests with little understory and lots of deer don’t
regenerate, and then carry fewer deer in the future.

‘This is a policy that relates to the future of hunting in
Minnesota,’ Grund said. ‘A healthy deer herd will have a healthy
forest understory.’

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