Minnesota hunters will harvest 200,000 whitetails a year — 25,000 fewer than some wanted — while gaining greater input over the animals’ management if a first-ever statewide deer plan is adopted as drafted by the Department of Natural Resources.
The agency’s deer management playbook for the next decade was revealed Monday after more than a year of discussions with a citizen advisory committee representing hunters, foresters, farmers, ecologists and the DNR’s big game wildlife experts. It arrived amid a mixed bag of reviews and a plan by the DNR to conduct at least 35 meetings this month to solicit more public comment.
Besides setting a proposed target harvest, the plan seeks to greatly increase citizen participation in deer management and makes an accommodation for the state’s declining moose population. It also talks about improving the health of wild deer by sharpening Minnesota’s oversight of deer farms, where chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a problem.
Recreational deer feeding also has been linked to the spread of CWD. But the drafted deer plan doesn’t call for the abolishment of the practice despite support for such a ban by members of the advisory committee.
“Our ultimate goal is to support our hunting traditions, better engage the public, and to maintain sustainable, healthy deer populations throughout Minnesota,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said.
Pat Morstad, a member of the advisory committee, said the deer plan is badly needed to force the DNR to give hunters and other citizens a bigger voice in whitetail management decisions. As a past president of the Minnesota chapter of the Quality Deer Management Association, Morstad said hunters always felt like they were kept “in the dark” by the DNR. The system led to mistakes that included overharvest of deer in northern Minnesota, he said.
Morstad said getting the DNR to commit to a numerical target for the annual deer harvest and prying open new communication channels — including more grass roots input on setting local harvest goals — will improve deer management in the state. He likes the deer plan as drafted.
“Overall I think it’s a good plan that has been put together with a lot of minds,” Morstad said.
He credited the DNR for balancing the habitat interests of diverse groups, not just deer hunters. “It’s a deer plan, not a deer hunting plan,” he said.
Dan Butler, another deer plan advisory committee member, said there’s nothing in the draft to hold the DNR accountable to citizens. In his experience, deep dialogue with DNR wildlife managers doesn’t necessarily influence them.
“The problem is they don’t take into account information presented to them,” Butler said.
Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Executive Director Craig Engwall said the deer plan addresses his top three concerns: more deer, more input from citizens and protecting the health of wild deer.
The deer hunters’ group advocated for a yearly target harvest of 225,000 deer. DNR deer biologists pushed for an annual target of 190,000 whitetails. The number was changed to 200,000 late in the process. Morstad said it’s a rough average of the past 30 years of hunting.
In general, annual harvests less than 200,000 will indicate a need for more conservative regulations to rebuild deer populations. Harvests greater than 200,000 will suggest hunting regulations need to be liberalized so more deer are harvested to reduce populations.
Roughly half a million Minnesotans hunt deer, generating nearly $500 million a year in economic activity. In 2015 and 2016, after the Legislature highlighted deer hunter dissatisfaction with the DNR, the Office of the Legislative Auditor reviewed the agency. The review found aspects of deer management commendable, but it also called for better tracking of deer license revenue. The deer plan proposes to dedicate at least $16 from every license to deer management, specifically.
The draft deer plan also calls for the creation of a new statewide citizen group to provide ongoing deer input to the DNR. In addition, locally assigned DNR wildlife managers would be required to hold at least two deer meetings per year.
On CWD, the deer plan advisory committee recommended that the DNR pursue a law change to require deer farmers to double-fence their captive animals to prevent transmission of the disease to wild deer.
And on moose, the deer plan calls on the DNR to manage deer in the primary moose range at levels meant to limit deer-moose interaction consistent with the Minnesota Moose Research and Management Plan.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213