The most interesting part of the statewide draft deer management plan the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources released Monday concerned moose, not whitetails.
Near the end of the more than 40-page document, under the heading “Deer management in primary moose range,’’ is a recommendation to “manage deer in the primary moose range at levels consistent with the Moose Management Plan.’’
What’s interesting about that? There is no “Moose Management Plan.’’
There is, however, as referenced two paragraphs later in the deer plan, a “current (2011) Moose Management Plan’’ — a northeast Minnesota blueprint the proposed deer plan rejects in favor of the imaginary “Moose Management Plan.’’
The distinction is important because for generations as many as 15,000 whitetail hunters have burnished deer-camp traditions in northeast Minnesota, and because in recent years the same hunters have been saddled — largely unfairly — with some of the blame for the state’s moose falloff.
Hanging in the balance is also the integrity of the draft deer plan.
Minnesota moose are in trouble. The iconic animals have disappeared from the northwest and have declined significantly in the northeast, numbering there most recently about 3,000, down from nearly 9,000 in 2006.
No one knows exactly why. Wolves kill some moose, especially calves. Bears also kill calves. Higher average temperatures, ticks, and habitat loss also might play roles.
Then there’s brainworm, a parasite carried benignly by deer but which disorients and ultimately (by one means or another) kills moose.
How brainworm finds its ways from deer to moose is complicated. Still, everyone agrees its incidence should be minimized.
The 2011 Moose Management Plan addresses the deer-moose-brainworm conundrum specifically, saying (1) that deer permit areas in the northeast should be realigned to delineate specifically a moose management area, and (2) that pre-hunt deer densities in the special moose area should be maintained at fewer than 10 per square mile.
The first of these recommendations occurred last year, when five reshuffled permit areas in the northeast were designated as a special moose management area. Deer remain in these areas, but due to harsh winters and aging forests, their numbers are among the lowest in the state — well below the pre-hunt 10-deer-per-square-mile recommendation in the 2011 moose plan.
Yet in the new moose zone, the DNR last fall allowed hunters in four of the five permit areas to kill antlerless deer (does) at will, while also issuing 400 antlerless permits in the fifth area. The DNR says these strategies reflected the aggregate preferences of regional stakeholders. Yet it remains true that those tactics are typically used to reduce deer numbers, not stabilize or increase them — suggesting a DNR effort, explicitly or implicitly, not to manage deer at or near the 10-animals-per-square-mile level, but below it, ostensibly to benefit moose and/or to assuage the concerns of moose enthusiasts.
Three contextual sidebars:
• In 2009, now-retired DNR researcher Mark Lenarz reviewed studies of brainworm in moose relative to the presence of deer. Lenarz’s conclusion: “Based on our current knowledge, reductions in deer density on moose range will likely have little effect on the population status of moose in Minnesota.’’
• More recent research led by Michelle Carstensen of the DNR that chronicled virtually in real time the reasons moose have died recently in Minnesota concluded that brainworm played a role in up to a third of the deaths.
• Wolf researcher Dave Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Minnesota concluded recently that “ ... Wolves, as in other areas, appear to have contributed to the decline in the northeastern Minnesota moose population at least in part through predation on calves, supporting earlier reports.’’
Now back to the just-released deer plan and its reference to managing “deer in the primary moose range at levels consistent with the Moose Management Plan,’’ rather than managing deer in moose range according to the 2011 moose plan.
Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, was at the stakeholder meeting in which the deer plan’s moose reference was discussed. He argued that his group couldn’t agree to language regarding deer management in the moose zone if the language didn’t in fact exist.
Which it doesn’t, because the referenced “Moose Management Plan’’ doesn’t exist.
He could, however, agree to deer management in the moose zone according to the 2011 moose plan, with its 10-deer-per-square-mile recommendation.
“If the DNR proposes to lower that number below 10 in some future moose plan, we assume there will be public input and everyone will have a say,’’ Engwall said. “We’re comfortable with the 2011 moose plan, but we would have to see any changes before we would agree to support a new plan.’’
Acting wildlife populations and programs manager Leslie McInenly and wildlife and research policy manager Lou Cornicelli, both with the DNR, said this week the 2011 moose plan was supposed to be revised in 2016, but staff shortages and other priorities prevented it.
When such a revision occurs, and it will, the amended plan presumably will become the heretofore amorphous “Moose Management Plan’’ that the draft deer plan referred to.
Which is fine — assuming the plan isn’t revised unilaterally by the DNR, but instead is updated after all relevant research is reviewed and all affected parties have had their say.
The bottom line is that deer hunters enjoy moose, just like everyone else, and want to see them remain on the Minnesota landscape.
In fact, through the state hunting group, hunters are heading up $8 million worth of moose-habitat development in the northeast — far more than anyone else in the state is doing to help these animals.
But that doesn’t mean they’re willing to write off, or significantly diminish, their long-held northeast Minnesota traditions by agreeing to a moose plan that doesn’t yet exist.