Looking to keep its Game and Fish Fund from dipping into the red, the Department of Natural Resources is proposing that deer hunters pay $4 more each year to pursue whitetails, raising the cost of a resident license to $34 from its present $30.

Other license and fee hikes also are on the DNR wish list. The agency wants annual resident fishing license costs bumped from $22 to $25, an annual state park permit to rise from $25 to $30, and state park day passes to edge up from $5 to $6.

Fees for boat, snowmobile and ATV licenses also would rise under the DNR plan.

But it’s the proposed deer hunting license hike that might determine whether any of the fee proposals are approved this session by the Legislature. That’s because the increase would affect some 500,000 Minnesota whitetail hunters, a group long familiar with making their voices heard at the Capitol.

Some background:

Last year, the Legislative Auditor released a report on DNR deer management. The review was generated by complaints among whitetail hunters that deer had been mismanaged by the DNR, resulting in populations in recent years that appeared to some hunters to be only fractions of what they were a decade ago.

Generally, the overview was neutral to positive for the DNR. But the auditor noted that by its reckoning only about $4 of every deer license was dedicated to actual deer management. The remainder, the report indicated, was dumped into the DNR’s Game and Fish Fund to cover general wildlife management expenses.

In response, some deer hunters said the disparity between DNR deer license income and specific deer management outgo was evidence the agency was shortchanging whitetail hunters. They said deer hunters were paying for management of wildlife other than whitetails, and paying also DNR salaries and other overhead, leaving little or no money for deer management itself.

DNR wildlife staff disagreed, saying the auditor didn’t understand that 1) much of the general habitat work DNR does also benefits deer, even though, 2) the DNR can’t always detail what this work is, or how deer might have benefited from it, because DNR employees don’t code their work that specifically.

Essentially, the DNR was, and is, saying: “Take our word for it. Deer hunters get their money’s worth.”

• • •

Comes then about a month ago the DNR’s proposal to increase the cost of resident deer licenses by $4 — an idea the agency knows it won’t get through the Legislature without the approval of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA).

All of which was preamble to MDHA’s annual meeting held about a week ago in Grand Rapids. At this gathering, representatives of the group’s 62 chapters can bring forth motions that, if approved, represent the organization’s position on given subjects.

Aware that MDHA members likely would take a position on the license-increase idea, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr traveled to Grand Rapids to make the agency’s case for the fee hike, bringing with him wildlife section chief Paul Telander and Deputy Fish and Wildlife Division Director Pat Rivers.

“We wanted to make sure they understood the need for the fee increase,” Rivers said in an interview last week. “The perception that we spend 15 cents of each deer-hunting license dollar on deer management is not correct. It’s more like 96 cents of every dollar.”

MDHA Executive Director Craig Engwall and MDHA members believe a more rigid expense structure for deer license money would remove any doubts that hunters — and deer — get the management they pay for.

“Here’s how the $30 from a deer license is currently set up,” Engwall said. “One dollar goes into a special deer-bear management account. Fifty cents goes into an emergency deer feeding/deer health [think CWD] account. Fifty cents goes into a wolf management account. Twenty-six dollars goes into the Game and Fish Fund. And only $2 goes into the dedicated deer management account.”

If MDHA is going to support the DNR’s proposed license increase, significantly more will have to go into the deer management account, Engwall said.

“Here’s what we propose,” he said. “The deer and bear management account would stay at $1. We would eliminate the wolf account. The emergency deer feeding/deer health contribution would be the same at 50 cents. The Game and Fish Fund would get $16.50. And the deer management account, rather than $2, would get $16.”

Rivers, of the DNR, says MDHA’s request to increase the amount the deer management account gets is reasonable. But deer management won’t change much as a result, he said.

“The issue is, we don’t code as expenses a lot of our work that benefits deer,” Rivers said. “Season setting work, for example, isn’t coded specifically as deer management, though it could be. Same, in parts of the state, for prescribed burns.”

The result, he said, is that deer hunters are getting their money’s worth — now, just as they will in the future, if the license increase is approved.

“The cost of doing business just keeps going up,” Rivers said. “And the health of the Game and Fish Fund depends on us getting these fee and license increases.”

Translation: Regardless how much deer license money is deposited in the various accounts, the fee increase, generally, is about maintaining the level of deer management Minnesota has. Not increasing it.

• • •

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

It’s apparent the DNR has for a long time used deer license money to fund other wildlife management in the state. Whether that’s a misuse of funds or a best and most efficient management practice, given the overlap of habitat requirements for various game and non-game species, depends on a person’s point of view.

Yet years ago the DNR committed itself to at least one significant deer management practice that would in fact benefit the state’s whitetail herd: the acquisition of, and/or creation of, more deer wintering areas to increase cold-weather survival rates among deer.

Progress toward that goal seems difficult to assess. “We’re looking at it as somewhat of a priority,” Rivers said. “We advocate for these areas whenever we’re dealing with [the DNR] Forestry [Division]. So it’s already in the works. In terms of new programs, no, it’s not on the table.”

Here’s an idea:

MDHA and others interested in deer management should require, in exchange for their support on license fee increases, the undertaking of certain whitetail-beneficial practices across the state’s landscape, rather than, necessarily, allocation of license fees among certain funds.

That way, success can be measured not in dollars divided or allocated — which will only sustain the current he-said, she-said dispute — but by the number of habitat and other projects completed that actually benefit deer.

And therefore deer hunters.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com