The Department of Natural Resources is entering the final stages of crafting Minnesota’s first comprehensive deer management plan, an undertaking the state’s half-million deer hunters are watching closely.

Deer management here is controversial, in large part because the number of hunters who target whitetails dwarfs the number that chases any other species.

A legislative audit of the DNR’s deer management program released in May 2016 jump-started the planning process. Creation of such a plan was among the audit’s recommendations. As part of the process, the agency has sought public input and relied on a 19-member advisory committee to help formulate the plan.

“It’s been a rough number of years in terms of deer management,” said Leslie McInenly, the acting populations and regulations program manager in the DNR’s wildlife section who’s leading the planning effort. “People are looking for more information and to have a better understanding of how we make decisions, and the information we use to make them.”

She’s working on the plan’s first draft, which she expects to distribute to the advisory group sometime next month. DNR officials will meet again with the group in mid-March and put the plan out for broader public comment in April. It’ll be finalized sometime this summer.

While the agency has received a number of recommendations from the advisory committee, it’s too early to say what will make it into the plan.

“I have some cause for optimism, but I’m pretty cautious about it,” said Craig Engwall, an advisory group member and executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “My key themes during this whole deal, in a nutshell, have been about transparency and deer hunter involvement on an annual basis.”

Historically, the DNR has set deer-population goals for various regions of the state based in part on a goal-setting process that occurred every few years. But in the years between, “deer hunters really had no avenue to communicate what they thought,” Engwall said.

He’s hopeful the DNR agrees with an advisory committee recommendation to allow population goals to rise as necessary. Currently increases are capped at 50 percent.

“In areas up in the far northern part of the state where we have severe winter [and associated deer mortality] and the population is really low, you don’t want to restrict it to a 50 percent growth rate,” Engwall said. “You want to do everything you can to bring it back to a normal herd level.”

Another likely point of contention: the plan’s annual deer harvest objective. The agency’s wildlife section wants that set at 190,000, but some members of the advisory group say that’s too low. Marty Stubstad, who represents the Bluffland Whitetails Association, says deer groups want a target in the range of 220,000 to 225,000. He notes that the 2017 harvest will end up being about 196,500.

“People were not seeing an overabundance of deer [during the 2017 seasons],” he said.

Engwall, for his part, notes that the 30-year harvest average is 199,000 whitetails, while the 15-year average is 214,000.

“We would be very disappointed if the DNR proposes 190,000 as an objective in light of those numbers,” he said. “[The 2017 season] was OK, but Minnesota is a really varied state and if you talk with folks in northern Minnesota, they don’t feel like we are in the sweet spot in terms of deer numbers. And yet we harvested more than the target the wildlife section is proposing.”

Wildlife officials have said annual harvest objectives in the 220,000s would require a deer population similar to or larger than that of the early 2000s, when some were clamoring to reduce deer populations.

Also to be determined: Whether the DNR goes along with the advisory group’s 15-4 recommendation to ban recreational feeding of deer. The agency says it unnaturally congregates the animals and presents a risk for the spread of diseases such as chronic wasting disease.

But feeding is popular, and an effort by the agency to outlaw it — which would require statutory changes and legislative approval — likely would trigger a backlash.

The plan also will include creation of an ongoing advisory group — regional or statewide — that provides regular input to the DNR on deer management.

“We really need to build support from the public for our deer management,” McInenly said. “In my mind, that’s building relationships and building dialogue opportunities. Certainly, those already are out there, so in some respects we will do a better job of highlighting the opportunities people have to interact with us and inform our decisionmaking. But we’ll also be looking to enhance those. ”