Proposal: Reduce deer herd in moose range

St. Paul — The DNR later this week is expected to release details of a proposal that would reduce deer numbers in the moose range of northeast Minnesota.

The objectives would be achieved through realignment of deer permit boundaries, while allowing for higher deer densities outside the moose range. But concerns have been raised about the timing of the proposal and a timeline that could potentially see changes instituted for the 2016 deer season.

“This is an effort to be responsive to folks that have been involved in conversations about moose and deer management in northeast Minnesota,” said Adam Murkowski, the DNR’s big-game program leader. “From a hunter’s perspective, these changes are beneficial as they allow us to grow deer herds that we know are outside of the primary moose range, something desired by the goal-setting team.”

But Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the proposal, which will have a two-week comment period, feels rushed, especially when considering the DNR’s normally drawn-out deer goal-setting process, which postponed setting goals for 54 deer permit areas after legislators last year called for an audit of the DNR’s deer population management program.

The stakeholder-influenced goal setting, however, had completed goals for five permit areas in northeast Minnesota’s moose range, and three of those areas called for a 25-percent increase in the deer population. 

“That was a very long, detailed process,” said Engwall, whose organization has been an advocate for habitat projects geared at helping the declining moose herd in northeast Minnesota. “There were recommendations that came out of that. In the end, it said that goals were compatible with the moose management plan.”

The goal-setting recommendations, however, also suggested reconfiguring some of the permit area boundaries.

Engwall, who said he isn’t necessarily opposed to the substance of the proposal, said the effort should be undertaken after the state’s legislative auditor is finished with its audit of how the DNR manages its deer herd, putting off such changes until the 2017 deer season.

He called the process, which will allow for a two-week comment period, instead of the much longer deer goal-setting process, rushed.

Murkowski encouraged all citizens and interested organizations to let their voices be heard during the comment period.

“These proposals reflect years of conversations with parties interested in deer and moose management in northern Minnesota,” Murkowski said. “The proposals are responses to conversations we have had with the public.”

Engwall spoke cautiously about the proposed changes, and said he looked forward to working with Murkowski, who was hired in January.

“My main thing is that they are significant changes and they deserve the involvement of the (deer goal-setting) stakeholders and certainly to wait until the legislative auditor’s report,” he said. “It should be addressed then. But I don’t want our process concerns to be viewed as substance concerns.”

Engwall said he did understand the pressure put on wildlife managers dealing with Minnesota’s moose population, which – though moose count numbers appear to have stabilized – are still less than half of what they were 10 years ago.

“We want moose to survive,” Engwall said.

The shift to lower deer numbers in the moose area is being billed by the DNR as a response to preliminary research findings that suggest that parasites carried by deer, including brainworm, are a contributing factor in the decline in northeast Minnesota’s moose population.

“Historically, deer and moose did not overlap in terms of their range,” Murkowski said. “It was not until the 1930s that we started to see moose come down with brainworm. Moose have not evolved to handle (brainworms). In addition, deer can carry a number of parasites and diseases.”

Deer carry brainworm but are not generally affected by them, whereas they are fatal to moose.

“We also understand that there are a number of factors affecting moose,” Murkowski said, noting that recent severe winters have driven down deer numbers in northeast Minnesota.

That also gives managers a chance to implement strategies that will allow for growing the deer population outside of the moose range, while keeping it low inside the moose range.

“We’ve heard from the goal-setting team and from deer hunters from many parts of Minnesota that they would like to see more deer on the landscape,” he said. “This is an effort to reflect what we heard from the public. I am looking forward to working with the folks of Minnesota to find ways we can come together and ensure that there are healthy wildlife populations now and into the future.”

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