Minnesota launches deer vs. trees debate

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2014 - 8:22 PM

Three-year discussion will decide how many deer are enough for hunters, too much for the woods.

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The 2013 deer hunting season produced a harvest of 172,000 deer, the lowest in 15 years.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune file,

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Minnesota’s deer czar, Leslie McInenly, knows that for a lot of hunters there can never be enough deer.

“It’s like me and chocolate,’’ she said.

But as the state launches a three-year process to reset its deer population — the first in nearly a decade — deer hunters won’t be the only ones at the table. There also will be white, red and jack pines, orchids and other wildflowers and all the species that depend on them.

The likely increased numbers of Minnesota’s favorite game animal will come at the peril of the state’s beloved pine trees and the native plants, insects and animals that live below them on the forest floor.

The state’s deer population exploded starting in the late 1990s, and, due largely to recent harsh winters, has since declined somewhat. But study after study shows that browsing by overabundant deer herds is crushing the biodiversity of northern and eastern forests. The threat they pose, say some forest ecologists, is greater than climate change.

In areas around Bemidji and Park Rapids, forest experts are projecting sizable loss of jack pine stands — partly because deer eat the new growth. With jack pine, red pine and the majestic white pine, any meaningful regeneration is now dependent on planting by hand or aerial seeding on prepared sites. Anti-browsing protections for the tiny trees and the cost of replanting stands that get wiped out by deer have made the process less successful and more expensive.

It’s a problem seen throughout the United States.

“We’ve already got more deer than the land can support,” said Gary Alt, a wildlife biologist now based in California who reduced Pennsylvania’s deer population to curtail the destruction of plant life that was harming that state’s $7 billion forest industry.

“If anything, it’s getting worse,” said Brian Palik, research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Grand Rapids.

Between 1997 and 2006, Minnesota’s whitetail population soared from an estimated 733,000 to more than 1.1 million, prompting an outcry from foresters and ecologists that deer were wiping out the understory in the woods. The Department of Natural Resources responded by lowering deer density goals in many areas between 2005 and 2007. Increasing the legal take, especially for female deer, reduced the herd size, as planned. But recent harsh winters have crashed the population in some areas, leading to an outcry from hunters who complained at recent “listening sessions” that deer are too scarce. The 2013 hunting season produced a harvest of 172,000 deer, the lowest in 15 years.

“As a general consensus, people I talk to think the numbers are about half of what they were,” said Mike Staggemeyer, who hunts on private land south of La Crescent. “I would like to see a few more deer.’’

Deer populations across Minnesota vary according to habitat and are managed differently from area to area. Current density levels range from a high of 25 to 30 deer per square mile in the extreme southeast to only 3 to 5 per square mile in the far west. In much of central and north-­central Minnesota, where most deer are harvested, numbers hover around 20 to 25 per square mile.

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said doubling the number would not be too much in some areas. Most hunters believe the state went “quite a ways” too far in lowering the population the last time around, he said.

“We are definitely at a low ebb,’’ Johnson said.

Deer debate begins

The latest rejiggering has started with a look at southeastern Minnesota, where a hunter-dominated citizen advisory team has called for increases in more than half of the region. The 21-member team, 18 of whom are deer hunters, did not propose any decreases. Its recommendations have been posted by the DNR for public reaction.

As Minnesota wades into the three-year process, McInenly said she expects to hear more from foresters, ecologists and timber companies as the evaluation moves northward. Farmers who suffer crop damage from deer and motorists who cross paths with them also will weigh in. And the DNR has its own costly fight against chronic wasting disease to consider as it changes density goals.

In the Arrowhead region, timber mill operator Jack Rajala has a different perspective on how many deer are enough. After years of fighting deer, he’s finally seeing low-enough numbers where browsing isn’t a problem for his young trees. Since the 1980s deer have eaten 1 million young white pines on his property even though the numbers in his part of the state are lower than many other areas. He learned to protect new seedlings with bud caps — paper scraps stapled to the trees’ leading growth stems. Even with lower densities, capping the seedlings is a necessity for about the first five years, until they are beyond deers’ reach.

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