BRAINERD, MINN. – Described as a "listening session,'' a gathering in this central Minnesota town Wednesday evening attracted some 60 deer hunters. At issue was the perception among most in attendance, voiced repeatedly, that too few deer inhabit the surrounding region, a complaint shared in many areas statewide. Doing the listening, and taking notes, were Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials.
It's no easy task, managing deer to socially acceptable population levels, which the DNR attempts to do. For starters, what constitutes such levels is not easily agreed upon. Hunters want a lot of deer. Orchard growers and others in agriculture generally want fewer. In between are homeowners with at-risk shrubbery, car drivers who fear whitetail collisions at freeway speeds, and ecology buffs who believe too many deer inhibit forest plant diversity.
Still, in many parts of the state there are too few deer, in part because weather bets DNR wildlife managers placed a few years back boomeranged. Bad as last winter was, particularly for northern whitetails, this winter is worse. In advance of these, arguably because of bad luck, the DNR allowed hunters to kill too many deer in some parts of the state.
The result, as Dave Sapletal of Brainerd put it Wednesday evening: "The deer are truly down.''
Added Ron Carlson of Pillager, Minn.: "The deer are down so far I didn't even hunt my home area.''
Hearing this, and more, from the frustrated hunters was a phalanx of DNR officials, headed by wildlife section chief Paul Telander. Also present were DNR research boss (and former big game coordinator) Lou Cornicelli, as well as big game program leader Leslie McInenly and wildlife programs manager Steve Merchant, among others.
Organized by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the Brainerd meeting, as well as one held Thursday evening in Cambridge and four others to be held in coming days (none in the Twin Cities), was intended to allow hunters to vent. The underlying assumption — hope — was that the DNR would take the hunters' concerns to heart and do what's required to rebuild the state's whitetail herd.
"I've hunted 62 years,'' said Dave Sapletal of Brainerd, "and in the last three or four years, the bucks just aren't there. Even in Camp Ripley. I spent 17 hours in a stand there last fall and I didn't see a single deer.''
The DNR has begun a multi-year process to recalibrate desired whitetail population levels in various regions of the state. Aiding the undertaking are citizen panels intended to represent a cross-section of affected groups, among them hunters and farmers. The intent is to reach consensus about appropriate whitetail levels in given areas, which, subsequently, the DNR will attempt to achieve by employing various hunter harvest strategies.
Hunters believe they were underrepresented a few years back on similar advisory panels and, as a result, whitetail population goals generally were set too low. The DNR disputes this. But the DNR does not dispute that in many parts of the state, if not most, the agency doesn't manage deer for maximum density — the land's "carrying capacity'' — but instead to levels it believes most everyone can live with, hunter or not.
Given that hunters pay the bills for deer management, more than a few feel gypped by a process that incorporates so completely the interests of other parties, most of whom are wildlife-conservation freeloaders.
•If hunters want to ensure that deer in their area and/or statewide are managed at sufficiently high levels, they must do more than come to the odd meeting and complain. Instead, they need to stay engaged in the process of setting population goals to ensure their interests are satisfactorily included in the outcomes. There's a significant difference between managing for 15 deer per square mile and 25 per square mile, for example, and if the DNR chooses the lower number, it should have to explain why.
•That said, hunters must acknowledge that deer population management includes a lot of guesswork. Harvest strategies are based on information gathered months or even a year earlier. Weather also is a big variable. As is hunter effort. And predators. So hitting a harvest mark, or even a harvest range, isn't going to happen every year, and DNR deer managers shouldn't be held to such an impossible standard.
Hunters instead must stay intimately engaged on the front end of the ongoing whitetail population goal-setting process, not only through the advisory panels but afterward, when population levels are announced.
It's then that hunters should require the DNR to justify its goal numbers and, as necessary, seek their adjustment.
Editor's note: More on upcoming listening sessions and the goal-setting process is online at www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/deer/mgmt.html.