DNR clarifies its proposal for moose range

St. Paul — Minnesota DNR wildlife managers say realignment of a handful of deer permit areas in the northeastern Minnesota moose range won’t bring with it further deer population reductions.

The deer population is already low following two harsh winters (the current winter, notwithstanding), so for most of the primary moose range, deer numbers would be kept low, according to the proposal. The boundary changes will allow for some increases in deer numbers that previously were kept low because of moose, said Adam Murkowski, DNR big-game program leader.

Among many factors that have been implicated in the decline of moose in northeast Minnesota, deer have been blamed for carrying brainworm. The parasite isn’t fatal to deer, but it is fatal to moose. Originally, deer did not inhabit the moose range.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, has been critical of the timeline of the proposal, the details of which were released Feb. 26, four days after the DNR issued a release announcing the changes.

That release was interpreted by many as a reduced deer herd in the moose range. But with deer numbers already low, the proposal would simply keep them low, without further reduction.

“In response to the moose population decline, Minnesota’s moose-management plan requires us to manage for lower deer densities in the moose range,” Murkowski said in the release published Feb. 22. “Fewer deer in the moose range minimizes the risk of parasites or disease spread by deer that harm or kill moose.”

Engwall blamed the wording of the release as giving the wrong impression. The press release, however, did not say the deer herd would be further reduced.

“I think the release maybe projected something that they didn’t intend,” said Engwall, who doesn’t necessarily oppose the substance of what the DNR is trying to do. He’s still critical of the DNR’s timeline, which allows for a two-week comment period.

Steve Merchant, the DNR’s wildlife populations and regulations program manager, said the proposal is an attempt to carry out recommendations of last year’s deer goal-setting process, which, he said, actually called for the changes, though recommendations were not unanimous among committee members, he said.

The timeline would allow the changes to be put in place for the 2016 deer season, though Engwall said he would prefer everything be slowed down and any changes to be made the following season.

“While we agree these issues should be looked at, we feel they deserve more than a two-week comment period,” Engwall said.

Merchant said the sense of urgency is based on getting it in for 2016.

“We don’t have to implement it in 2016, but we feel like we made a commitment to the deer goal-setting team, and it was our understanding that this is what they wanted us to do,” he said. “We have a ton of work to do to make that happen.”

The DNR put that same deer goal-setting process on hold midway through the process after the Legislature commissioned an audit into the way the agency manages its deer population, and Engwall said it would be better for this latest proposal to have come after the audit.

“I am not saying one is right or the other,” Merchant said. “We knew some might see it this way. … We publicly said we were going to delay the deer goal-setting plan until after the audit report. We didn’t say we weren’t going to manage deer in all aspects because we have a deer season. … I am not aware of any of the team members that said they didn’t want this to happen.”

Engwall views the proposal as a departure from the 25-percent increase from 2014 levels in three out of five deer permit areas in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, but Merchant said those increases are still part of the proposal.

Brooks Johnson, of Minnesota Bowhunters, Inc., also views the proposal as a departure.

“They were suggesting that this was going to be beneficial to hunters in Minnesota, when in reality there are going to be fewer deer up there,” he said. “I am not doubting that there is merit to what they are doing. But if we see bumps in a few places that’s great, but 90 percent of the area is going to be fewer deer, so it’s hard to spin it as beneficial to the deer hunter.”

Merchant pushed back against the notion that the proposal is a departure from the deer goal-setting recommendations.

“In all three (corresponding deer permit areas), there is still a 25-percent increase,” he said.

The new boundaries allow to separate areas where it is appropriate to have high deer densities, and some of that will occur in the primary moose range, though it will be in areas that have historically low moose populations, Merchant said.

In areas considered the best habitat for moose, the goal will be to keep deer populations low.

Take, for example, the proposed DPA 133, which would be a newly established deer permit area along the North Shore, where there are both resident deer, and deer that migrate south. 

It was part of the larger DPA 180, the remainder of which would be known as DPA 132, which would now include parts of former DPAs 122, 178, and 181. The new 132 also would have to allow for a 25-percent increase in deer, but the new DPAs 130 and 131 would be primarily managed for moose, meaning deer numbers would be kept low.

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