Love ’em or hate ’em, soon all Minnesotans will have a chance to weigh in on just exactly how the state should manage its 1 million hosta-munching, trophy-antlered, crop-eating, accident-prone whitetail deer.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is embarking on its first statewide plan for deer, and intends to invite not just hunters to the table, but also a wide range of interest groups that includes conservationists, local governments, foresters, ecologists, auto insurance companies and anyone else who might feel the effects of too many or too few deer in their territory.

It wasted no time in adopting the primary recommendation that came out of a report made public Thursday by the Office of the Legislative Auditor. The DNR requested the audit to help it balance the many competing interests around deer.

“At this point, deer management is in need of the big picture,” said Valerie Bombach, who headed up the deer research project for the auditors office.

Paul Telander, head of the DNR’s wildlife division, said the agency has only just begun thinking about how to develop the plan with public input, but said he expected it would be done by the 2018 deer hunting season.

“One of our challenges will be to balance the diverse interests in this area,” he said.

Up until now the DNR has managed deer numbers primarily for forestry and the state’s 500,000 deer hunters. It sets population goals for 128 different permit areas in the state, and achieves them by adjusting how many hunting permits it issues for does. Those numbers vary widely, and can generate intense controversy when hunting interests collide with other environmental problems — like moose.

Deer numbers in some parts of northeast Minnesota were set extremely low in recent years to protect the declining moose population from the parasites that deer bring into the woods. But the question of how to manage deer in order to protect moose was so controversial that the hunters, scientists and others on the DNR’s advisory committee could not come to a consensus on what the deer population goals should be.

Overall, the auditor’s report said the DNR does a pretty good job of managing deer. But it said the agency could do better at counting them, communicating its information and telling the public how it makes its decisions about deer management.

Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the audit provides optimism for better deer management.

Deer hunters have been frustrated by insufficient sharing of information by the DNR. Lately, Engwall said, the agency has been opening up.

But he’s glad the audit calls on DNR officials to provide more understandable information to deer hunters and other stakeholders before discussion periods and decision times.

“The information needs to be pulled together cohesively,” Engwall said. “Are we part of this or not?”

Lee Frelich, a leading forest researcher at the University of Minnesota, said he was also glad to hear that the state was embarking on a major plan that goes beyond setting numbers for hunting.

High numbers of deer in the central and southeast parts of the state and along the North Shore of Lake Superior are doing enormous damage to the forests, he said. It’s extremely difficult for foresters to regenerate red oak, which is highly valued in the timber industry, because deer love to eat it. Trillium and pink lady-slippers, Minnesota’s state flower, are also gone in areas that have a lot of deer, he said.

“Deer can eat certain plants out of existence,” he said. “It’s a real concern for biodiversity.”

Still, as long as it’s in charge of a precious and controversial natural resource like deer, the DNR will always be the focus of public frustration, said State Auditor James Nobles in testimony to a legislative committee on Thursday.

“Will controversy over managing the deer population ever go away?” Nobles said. “No, [the DNR] is the lightning rod for criticism about management of all our natural resources.”

 

Staff Writer Tony Kennedy contributed to this report.