The Great Deer Debate of 2014-2015 could gain further traction at the Capitol if, as some hunters hope, the Legislature directs its auditor to review in detail the Department of Natural Resources’ whitetail management plan.

Were that to happen, finances surrounding DNR deer management likely wouldn’t be in the cross-hairs. Rather, herd management would.

Specifically, those seeking a review, or audit, of the agency’s whitetail program want events leading to the state’s current deer shortage dissected in detail, and processes put in place to prevent a recurrence.

E-mails were being sent around the state Thursday by hunter groups, asking their legislators to call for a review.

Yet the chance the legislative auditor will actually critique deer management in the state isn’t good, some believe. Among other reasons: a shortage of time and staff, given other requests made by legislators to the auditor.

Perhaps it’s unnecessary in any event, because DNR wildlife managers are well aware that Minnesota deer hunters are unhappy, and agency officials have no interest in keeping deer numbers at their current level.

Last fall, about 130,000 deer were killed in the state, a far cry from the 290,000 harvested in Minnesota in 2003.

When the latter tally was recorded, most everyone agreed that too many, not too few, deer inhabited the state. The big herd had been the result, primarily, of a series of winters characterized by moderate temperatures and little snow — the possible results, many believed, of global warming.

At the time, many people believed the more temperate winter weather would be the state’s “new normal.’’

If so, the decorative plants throughout Minnesota that already were being chomped into oblivion by excessive numbers of whitetails might be made extinct altogether, some people feared.

Plant diversity in state forests also was threatened where the animals congregated, which took on added importance when, in 2005, the DNR sought to have the state’s forests certified as being sustainably managed.

The certification process was important to keep the state’s timber producers competitive with producers from other states. Paper manufacturers were being pressured, to varying degrees, by their customers to demonstrate that wood they used to make paper came from sustainable forests.

Adhering to the certification standards also would ensure Minnesota state forests would be interspersed with the early successional swaths of woods necessary to support grouse and other wildlife populations.

For these reasons, the DNR sought, and achieved, certification of its state forests by adhering to a long list of required forest-management standards.

None of these required the DNR to reduce the number of deer that roamed the forests. Still, the high whitetail numbers were part of a mix of DNR forest-management considerations.

“We knew we had too many deer,’’ said DNR wildlife populations and regulation program manager Steve Merchant. To reduce the herd, “we had been laying the groundwork for [deer population] public input meetings in 2004, a year before we sought certification for our forests.’’

Those public input meetings, like ones currently underway, involved a dozen or so individuals representing either themselves or various deer or other stakeholder groups.

The DNR asked the panels to consider whether deer numbers in given areas should be reduced, increased or held the same.

Hunters critical of the DNR say, in effect, that the meetings begun in 2005 were rigged, with too few hunters included in the small groups. The DNR disputes this. Regardless, the end result was the implementation of a new DNR deer management scheme that in some instances allowed hunters to take as many as five animals a season.

The resulting higher harvests, combined with a return of tougher winters, triggered the deer population slide that today just about everyone involved regrets.

So, given the perspective of past events, how big should the state’s herd be?

On Saturday, meeting in Grand Rapids, Minn., Minnesota Deer Hunters Association members likely will endorse an average annual harvest target of some 225,000 deer. Reasonable as that figure might seem, it — or any number — necessarily is only an estimate. Given the vagaries of weather, available habitat and other factors, managing to a certain deer population or harvest target is an exercise in imprecision.

For his part, Merchant said that a deer harvest of 200,000 or more animals generally keeps Minnesota hunters happy.

Whereas harvests under about 190,000, he said, “and the phone starts ringing.’’

Aiding the rebuilding of the state’s whitetail herd is the current relatively mild winter. A couple more like it in succession and most deer hunters will stop complaining.

And the DNR’s phones will stop ringing.

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com