Guest commentary: Minnesota’s deer herd will increase, but from what?

Stakeholder teams are meeting all across the state to make zone specific recommendations to the size of our deer herd. Most zones will be getting an increase, and a common team question is, “An increase to what?” The answer is an increase to a perception.

In a Block 4 team meeting, I raised an issue with voting increases to a computer-derived perception that does not match what the hunters and landowners of Minnesota are seeing in the woods. Similar to many other discussions with the DNR on deer numbers, my comments were met with deflection, so I went home and began surveying the hunters of the areas I am representing. That was my assigned task after the meeting and I took it seriously.

Over the next few days, I collected responses on the perceptions of 131 hunters representing more than 14,000 acres of private and 60,000-plus acres of public land. Their average perceived decrease is more than 60 percent –  60 percent fewer deer than 10 years ago, and these numbers come from guys who are actually counting deer with their eyeballs rather than on a computer screen in St. Paul.

Perhaps you share the DNR’s sentiment that my survey techniques are not legitimate. Consider this University of Minnesota-collected data from the recent hunter and landowner surveys. 

When Block 5 was asked their perception of the herd size compared to five years ago, 88 percent of the hunters said deer numbers were down. Eighty percent of landowners reported that the herd was smaller. The DNR perception is the deer herd is 20 percent larger. When somebody from the team asked how that is possible, the DNR answer was, “Hunter attitudes and behaviors may have changed in the past 10 years.” Seriously? The only thing that changed in the past 10 years is the size of the deer herd.

Despite the mountain of public perception that the herd has been cut almost in half, our DNR is still presenting computer-generated herd estimates that do not jibe with any data set collected by any group. They roll forward a process built on a paper platform that does not match reality.

On March 18, I will bring my zone-by-zone votes and rationale for my decisions to the final team meeting. By night’s end we will conclude a team process with 99 percent of the public input saying the herd is in shambles. The other 1 percent came from two people who don’t want us hunting wolves. I can’t find a single written or spoken comment indicating too many deer. None.

As I vote my percentage increases, information from my three-ring DNR binder will not be the driving factor. DNR herd estimates and harvest data collected without a value of hunter effort are not legitimate. The DNR model and its herd-monitoring efforts have proven of zero value when compared to reality. Evidence the conservative harvest goals of 2014 and now 2015. The DNR model says the deer are there, yet even those who defend it publicly are ignoring its suggestions. 

My votes will be cast according to the responses of the hunters and landowners I have been speaking with, and will continue to be contacting. Areas ignored for a decade have half the deer of 10 years ago, and increases of 10 percent and 25 percent are not acceptable. Minimal percentage increases for these zones will not achieve a super-majority consensus if my vote makes a difference.

I hope many of the other hunter stakeholders take the time to go afield and uncover the hunter perception of how far the herd has been taken back in their area. Sadly, I fear it will not happen. I doubt many team members will have invested the absurd amount of time I have in the process, and the hunters will be shorted because of it. I feel sorry for the blocks where it will not happen.  

Our DNR owns this stakeholder process, and does a fine job at producing the outcome they desire. I have a dollar that says my block will not see the hunters voting nominal increases to depleted zones, and that means you won’t hear the DNR stating the hunters of Block 4 requested any minor herd increases. I hope to read of other stakeholder blocks doing the same.

Disclaimer: This commentary reflects Johnson’s opinions, and not necessarily those of others on the goal-setting team.

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