Archery deer season is a week away, and the gathering of the Legislature is farther off still. But an undercurrent of discontent among some Minnesota deer hunters who claim the Department of Natural Resources has mismanaged the state's whitetail herd likely will keep the two on a short list of topics discussed in hunting camps this fall.
That's because a movement is afoot that would have the Legislature order an audit — or some type of review — of the way the DNR oversees the state's deer.
The effort is led by Brooks Johnson of the Twin Cities, president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc. (mnbowhunters.org) and one of perhaps thousands of state whitetail hunters who have been disappointed in recent years with the number of deer they've seen while afield.
Whether by ineptitude or intention, Johnson says — and in either case, without fully informing hunters — DNR wildlife managers have reduced the number of deer in the state to unacceptable levels, perhaps bowing, as they did, to orchard owners, farmers and others who fear that too many deer might damage their property.
"Minnesota's deer harvest peaked in 2003 at more than 290,000,'' Johnson said. "This year it might fall below 120,000 according to the DNR.''
In Johnson's view, the significant drop-off occurred while the DNR said publicly it wanted to cut the state's deer herd only fractionally.
"The reduction has been a lot more than that,'' Johnson said.
Inspired in part by audits of deer management in recent years in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Johnson said his intent is to have a neutral third party assess whether the DNR employs well-founded science in its deer work, and isn't overly influenced by agriculture or other industries, including vehicle insurers worried about car-deer collisions.
Johnson also wonders whether state deer managers have enough money and people to manage whitetails with precision.
On Thursday, Minnesota DNR big game program leader Leslie McInenly defended her agency's deer management scheme, while acknowledging two points: The DNR, she said, hasn't done a good job communicating the way it manages deer. And, she said, though the specifics of Minnesota's deer "modeling'' method — by which it asks a computer to estimate whitetail populations based on information inputted to it — is different from that of other states, its methodology is nonetheless sound.
"I think the tools we use to monitor deer, including our model, are good tools,'' McInenly said. "But if someone wants to evaluate them, that's fine.''
McInenly, 38, took over the DNR's top deer-management job in 2012, having previously served as an information officer with the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in wildlife management, with a focus in graduate school on elk.
The DNR's current "broad'' management strategy, McInenly said, is to increase the size of the state's herd, realizing that in some regions, whitetail numbers have dropped too far.
To help develop revised deer population goals — if not by individual permit areas, then by regions — more public input meetings will be held this winter, she said.
"We've heard that there is discontent among hunters about the size of the herd, and that's why we've restarted the goal-setting process with the public,'' McInenly said
Regardless how the conflict does (or doesn't) play out in the Legislature, deer management likely will always be particularly imprecise in Minnesota and other northern states. That's because the DNR calculates the number of antlerless (doe) permits allotted to hunters in a given year before the severity of the following winter can be known.
Thus the herd in some instances (witness the past two years, especially in the northern part of the state) can be subject to a double-whammy: A fairly large hunter harvest followed by a killer winter.
Still, Johnson and others raise good questions.
"The DNR's deer management model isn't working,'' he said. "I want the DNR to step up their efforts. I want more boots on the ground, more eyes on the field, so we can know more about our deer herd and its size. Frankly, the DNR needs more money and people to do this right.''
Countered McInenly: "Does our model need to be revisited? Are there things we need to do differently? It depends in part what the expectations are for our data.
"I would suggest most of our staff feels comfortable with the resources we put into deer monitoring. But if expectations are changing about what information our model gives us, then we may need to look at doing things differently to meet those expectations.''
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org