Front and center Wednesday when the Department of Natural Resources announced a significant paring back of the deer hunting season this fall was the realization that the agency has ever-fewer cards to play in its attempt to attract and retain hunters.

Deer, after all, are Minnesota’s most abundant game animal, also the most sought after and the biggest revenue producer for the DNR. Now with bucks-only restrictions in effect in the northeast and antlerless permits generally as rare as a winning lotto ticket, even this cash cow will struggle to draw newcomers to deer camps.

Widely acknowledged is that ducks and pheasants in this state are on the ropes, and that ruffed grouse population peaks, when they occur, are trending downward. Were this the state’s economy that was in the tank, rather than game populations, Gov. Mark Dayton’s re-election this fall would be at risk.

But lucky for Dayton and his DNR appointees, even those Minnesotans whose lifestyles are centered on the outdoors vote political ideology first and their pocketbooks a close second. Fish and game losses are always a concern, as is, generally, the environment — perhaps even enough for the online bunch to get their knickers in a knot for a few days. But don’t expect anyone to be tossed from office because Lake Pepin is filling in with farmers’ topsoil, Asian carp are knocking on the door and ducks are in the dumps. It’s not how we roll.

Which is the interesting part, the sociology of all of this, or what the fish and wildlife crowd calls the human dimensions.

A fundamental example: Which aspects of game laws do or don’t prompt people to obey wildlife regulations? Concern for the animals’ welfare? Fear of punishment? The shame that comes with being busted?

More complicated are fish, wildlife and environment questions that involve priority ranking.

Example: Minnesota has as many or more anglers per capita than any other state, also more registered boats per capita, and consistently ranks near the top nationwide in most forms of outdoor participation, including hunting.

Yet, as noted above, conserving this lifestyle and the resources it requires nearly always takes a back seat to the politics of (pick one or more) guns, abortion, religion, same-sex marriage, industrial agriculture, the employment rate, the stock market, housing prices, etc.

A conundrum this, and one the DNR, along with related conservation groups, should study. Because a future of (yes) global warming and (related or unrelated) increasing pressure on natural resources and decreasing outdoor recreation opportunities (if only due to human population growth) is on the horizon.

How outdoor enthusiasts react to these negative stimuli will depend on their expectations, which in turn will determine how many of them continue participating in outdoor activities and, in turn, how many are motivated to move conservation issues higher on the political ladder.

Wednesday, in a conference call with outdoors writers and other ne’er-do-wells announcing this fall’s restrictive deer season, DNR wildlife populations and regulations manager Steve Merchant was asked if he thought fewer deer hunters would go afield this fall because their chances of killing a deer were reduced.

Hunter falloff likely will be minimal, Merchant said, because “in Minnesota, deer hunting is a lot more than a body count.’’ He also said he didn’t think the state needed to provide “tons of deer out there for kids, otherwise they will lose their attention spans.’’

In truth, Merchant knows that fewer opportunities to hunt, and fewer opportunities to take game, will, over time, result in fewer hunters (or anglers; see Mille Lacs). He also knows that if young people or others new to hunting don’t have a reasonable chance for success, a significant percentage will drop out. Given these certainties, and assuming the future will bring fewer hunting and fishing opportunities and that the competition for public funds and political capital will only grow more intense (due to increasing societal complexity), the human dimensions associated with these expected outdoor-activity declines would seem to warrant considerable attention by the DNR.

Expectations, after all, can be manipulated.

Example: Killing a limit of pheasants (which yields considerable hunter satisfaction) requires only two birds in the bag in Minnesota. Yet killing a limit of ducks (yielding comparable satisfaction) requires six. Why is this? And can satisfaction levels be maintained, via altered expectations, if the limits are reduced? Similarly, where is it written that a third of Minnesota deer hunters must bag a whitetail every year (the approximate historical average) for interest levels to remain constant? Why not every other year?

To continue to hunt and fish, absent ever-growing frustration, Minnesota sportsmen and women must adjust their expectations to coming realities.

To thrive, if not survive, the DNR must help them.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com