Groups react to Minnesota DNR’s new deer-management plan

St. Paul — Reactions were mixed as deer hunters began to digest the final version of the Minnesota White-Tailed Deer Management Plan, the first such state plan that was release July 24 by the Minnesota DNR.

A more thorough review of the 50-page document and supporting materials also revealed in more detail the changes that were made in this final version as well as the DNR staff’s thinking in making those changes.

Even those who were generally supportive of the finished product – the culmination of nearly two years of meetings by the Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee – had a few questions.

But the plan, which has been described as more of a view from 20,000 feet than the permit-area-level goal-setting process that has long existed, will certainly bring about some changes in the way the state manages its deer herd.

Denis Quarberg, a member of DMPAC and the previous president of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the plan was well-received among a group of southern Minnesota deer hunters he was visiting with in the days following the plan’s release.

“It was talked about,” he said. “Overall, I think even members and non-members (of MDHA) are glad there is something in writing so that we have firm guidance on where we want to go. Are there things we’d like to see in there? Sure. I would say, overall, people are more at ease with the plan than they were at first.”

Among the things that came out of the planning process was DNR’s pledge to do a better job of communicating with hunters and the general public.

Years ago, the department held area-level meetings that members of the public could attend in order to converse with area managers, but they were discontinued because of poor attendance, DNR officials explained during the planning process. The DNR now plans to bring something like that back, with meetings expected to be held before the archery deer season. It also intends to convene a statewide deer group that will meet to deliberate about ongoing deer-related issues.

Quarberg recalled going to one of those meetings at least a decade ago, but noted that there was little back-and-forth conversation.

“They fell off because people would go and voice concerns and absolutely nothing was done,” he said. “I went to one meeting and when the regional wildlife manager stood up, his first words were, ‘We are here tonight to give you information. We will not be taking any information you give us.’ That is saying you listen to me, we don’t want to hear anything from you.”

Brooks Johnson, president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc. and a frequent critic of DNR’s deer-management decisions, voiced little faith that the agency actually heeded public comments.

“They are required to collect public input. What they do with it is up to them,” said Johnson, who critiqued the plan on a number of points, including its use of the term “eliminate” in reference to chronic wasting disease. He called that a lie, because the goal has never been accomplished by a state since the disease began spreading after being discovered in Colorado in 1967.

“Public meetings are OK,” he said. “I would rather they are part of a legitimate speaking process open to the people of Minnesota – not just deer hunters. Everybody should be able to have legitimate input as to what happens. I don’t think that’s what those meetings are.”

But DNR staff that worked on the document in concert with the DMPAC did outline changes to the document following comments from the committee, from the general public, and from tribal interests. As noted in last week’s Outdoor News story on the plan, additional language putting more emphasis on CWD was added at the behest of the DMPAC.

Other notable edits

The DNR also produced two associated documents summarizing both state and tribal comments and how they resulted in “notable” edits to the plan.

While committee member Bernie Overby, of Goodhue County, expressed concern that tribal interests would have had an influence on the plan regarding deer in southeastern Minnesota, he acknowledged that band members are residents of the state, too.

“The changes regarding moose came from a request from the tribes, initially,” Overby said.

The DNR received comments from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, 1854 Treaty Authority, Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Fond du Lac Division of Resource Management, and the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa.

Generally, some tribal respondents questioned whether a harvest target was an appropriate objective. Indeed, the DNR’s 200,000 harvest quota drew much debate during the planning process for a lot of reasons, including the fact that Minnesota had never published such a number before.

“Due to stakeholder interest, the DNR agreed to develop a harvest target for the plan,” the document reads, noting that the plan was revised “to clarify that annual seasons will continue to be set to move deer populations toward established population goals for each deer permit area.”

Basically, the number won’t be used to drive annual season decisions but more to track how well the department is meeting population goals.

One other change that was influenced by tribal comments was a revision that clarified “moose will be the big-game priority in primary moose range for the foreseeable future.”

In last week’s Outdoor News story regarding the plan, Craig Engwall, MDHA’s executive director, expressed his displeasure, representing the interests of deer hunters in northeast Minnesota, with the language in the document being harsher than the most recent DNR moose plan.

Published in 2011, that moose plan allows management for up to 10 deer per square mile in primary moose range. Engwall said the deer plan’s less hospitable language seemed to precede the research on the issue of brainworm, which deer can carry but is fatal for moose. Indeed, the DNR’s adult moose mortality study won’t likely be published for another year.

But Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said it is not too soon to act on what is known and it’s time the state’s moose plan be updated.

“We know now, after years of research, that about 30 to 40 percent of mortality of adult moose comes from brainworm,” Moore said. “When the last moose plan came out, we didn’t know that. We knew it was a factor. That is the largest single mortality caused to moose, and our deer numbers are already lower than 10 per square mile, so it stands to reason that’s not enough.”

Moore said managing for lower deer densities doesn’t have to be viewed negatively by deer hunters. Instead, he said, it can be viewed as an increased deer-hunting opportunity, with higher bags and longer seasons to achieve the goal were game managers to go that route.

Fond du Lac Band wildlife biologist Mike Schrage said members of FdL support fewer deer in the primary moose range, but still love deer.

“Even if we wanted to eliminate deer, it’s just not possible,” Schrage said. “Outside of moose range, members are all about deer. We are not against higher deer numbers – just where it is appropriate to have them.”

Those two issues (moose management and whitetail harvest target) also came up in the DNR’s 12-page document summarizing and responding to general public comment (the tribal document was six pages). The document noted that the agency received 1,042 online comments and 67 written responses to a questionnaire, with half of the respondents 55 years old or older and 91 percent male.

While some said they believed the plan was balanced, comprehensive, and strategic, others said it was too long, complicated, or vague. So, according to this document, an effort was made to remove excess language and jargon.

The document also summarized the increased emphasis on CWD, and touched on a desire by some respondents for emphasis to be put on trophy deer.

As was pointed out last week by Leslie McInenly, the DNR’s acting wildlife populations program manager, while there is a widespread desire for that goal, there is not agreement on how to get there.

To that, the document notes the plan was revised to reflect the DNR’s “commitment to tracking hunter preferences, identifying preferred management strategies, working within legislative direction, and including other important deer hunter values in management decisions.”

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