Brooks Johnson says Minnesota's deer population is too low.
And he's not alone.
Other hunters are grumbling, too, after a 2013 season that produced the lowest deer harvest in 15 years — and a 17 percent decline since 2010.
But Johnson, 46, of Monticello, is doing more than complaining. He has launched a new effort called the Minnesota Deer Density Initiative to push the Department of Natural Resources to boost the deer population. He's holding meetings with hunters, hunting groups and legislators, and collecting signatures on a petition demanding that deer density goals be revised immediately.
"The low deer numbers are severely diminishing the quality of the hunt in much of the state,'' he wrote in a letter to DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, saying deer densities in many areas were set too low years ago in the DNR's goal-setting process.
"It's a widespread problem,'' said Johnson, an avid whitetail hunter and president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc.
DNR officials don't deny that whitetail numbers are below agency goals in some areas.
"There are certain areas where the number of deer are way below what we'd like to see,'' Landwehr said over the weekend in Bloomington at an annual meeting with citizens. "I haven't seen a deer [while hunting] in the last four years.''
But they also say hunters can't expect to shoot record and near-record numbers of whitetails, as they did from 2002 to 2007 — including a record 290,000 deer in 2003.
Reason for decline
While there's some agreement the deer population is too low, there's plenty of disagreement over why. Last winter was hard on deer in the north, and this winter isn't looking much better.
But Johnson blames the DNR's deer density goal-setting process from 2005-07, when the deer population in many areas was deemed too high. Fifteen groups, each with about 20 citizens selected by the DNR, met with the agency, and it was decided to reduce deer densities substantially in many areas by liberalizing hunting regulations.
Johnson and others now say those groups didn't adequately represent the best interest of hunters, that some members, including farmers, insurance companies and the foresters, swayed the groups to reduce deer densities too much.
"I don't think there was an equitable voice for Minnesota hunters,'' Johnson said. "No one was watching. Private industry had too many seats at the table, and there was an agenda to lower deer numbers. Guys I talked to said they were basically buffaloed into helping lower deer numbers.''
Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manger, then the big game program leader who instigated the deer density goal-setting process, strongly disagrees. Those selected to the citizen groups represented a broad range of interests, but all had an interest in deer, and the vast majority were hunters, he said.
"We attempted to have a broad distribution of people,'' Cornicelli said, which included the timber industry in the north and farmers in the south, because both are impacted by deer. "We tried consciously not to stack the deck one way or another.''
Cornicelli said the DNR didn't solicit auto insurance industry representatives, as some have alleged.
"There might have been one or two people who worked for an insurance company, but it [the industry] wasn't represented.''
He said other characterizations of the process as tainted are "incorrect, misleading or just flat wrong.''
Said Cornicelli: "We set the goals through a very public process. There's nothing wrong with people not liking the results and wanting to revisit it. But it has to be open and honest and fair, which was done before.''
New goals being set
The DNR began reexamining deer density goals in 2012, and new goals have been established in 23 deer permit areas. This winter, the DNR is reexamining permit areas in much of southeastern Minnesota, and will soon select a stakeholder group from about 100 nominees.
"There's definitely a lot of interest,'' said Leslie McInenly, current DNR big game program leader. Both public meetings, and meetings with the stakeholder group, will be held. Online comments also will be accepted, as they were last time.
Similar groups will be formed in other areas of the state, so deer densities statewide should be revised by the fall of 2016, McInenly said.
"The goal isn't to maximize the number of deer in front of a gun, but to determine how many deer should be on the landscape,'' Cornicelli said. High deer populations impact forest regeneration, deer-vehicle collisions and agricultural damage, he said.
All of those factors, as well as hunter satisfaction, must be considered when determining optimum deer populations, he said.
There never will be enough deer to satisfy all hunters. Even during years of record harvest, hunter success rates rarely exceeded 40 percent, and usually are around 30 percent — meaning most deer hunters don't get one.
Johnson says he understands that, but said many areas can support much higher deer densities, without causing other problems. His petition calls for changes to be made in time for the 2014 deer season, and he's hoping he and his supporters can collect at least 100 signatures per county.
He dismisses other potential reasons for the low deer harvest in 2013, including high winds and standing corn when the season opened.
"It's not wind, it's not corn — there just aren't as many deer in the woods,'' Johnson said.