A native Texan who first studied wildlife biology in Wisconsin and longed to return to the North is Minnesota’s new big game program supervisor with authority over deer, elk and moose. Barbara Keller, 38, will start Feb. 1 at the Department of Natural Resources. She has a Ph.D. and 12 years of professional experience in wildlife management, research and diseases, including leadership of deer and elk management for the state of Missouri since 2016. She answered questions this week in a telephone interview from her office in Columbia, Mo.
Q: Do you hunt?
A: I grew up in the city of Fort Worth, Texas, and I’m one of those rare people with “adult onset hunting.” I enjoy deer hunting and wild turkey hunting. I usually hunt alone, and it’s been a struggle in some cases to teach myself. I don’t own hunting property. For deer, I partake in rifle and muzzleloader hunting and recently acquired a compound bow. In Minnesota, I’d like to experience duck, grouse and pheasant hunting … ice fishing too!
Q: What attracted you to Minnesota?
A: I fell in love with the northwoods when I moved from Texas after high school to study natural resources at Northland College in Ashland, Wis. Minnesota really has a great abundance of natural areas, including the Boundary Waters, sites for cross-country skiing, hunting, hiking and fishing.
Q: What’s your experience with chronic wasting disease?
A: CWD was detected in deer in north-central Missouri in 2012. It’s since been detected in many other areas of the state, but in Missouri we were early to recognize the outbreaks and are not seeing high prevalence rates.
Q: Does Missouri use tactics similar to Minnesota to fight CWD?
A: Yes. We do a lot of testing and we cull local herds when we find a CWD-positive deer.
Q: Have Missouri hunters and landowners accepted the strategy?
A: The way we manage the disease is a tough pill for hunters to swallow. We ask them to sacrifice tradition for the benefit of future generations. We’ve been pretty successful getting cooperation, but it’s always a struggle. The most difficult part is communications. It’s a very complicated disease.
Q: What will be your first priority in Minnesota?
A: Implementing the statewide deer management plan that was completed in 2018. That means improving communications and transparency with the public. Certainly not everyone will agree with our management decisions, but we will make every effort to engage stakeholders, share data and show how we use it. In Missouri, we publish a deer population status report every year, and we continuously update our website to show harvest results, county by county. I’ll also research whether there is room to improve Minnesota’s deer population model and we will soon develop a statewide deer committee.
Q: How important is deer hunting in Missouri?
A: We have about 500,000 hunters, or 6 percent of the population. It’s very important to Missourians and the Missouri culture. Participation in deer hunting has declined in other areas of the country, but not in Missouri. Hunters harvested more than 280,500 whitetails in 2018. (Minnesota’s harvest was less than 200,000.)
Q: Besides CWD, what challenges did you face in Missouri?
A: The Missouri deer population was hit hard in 2012 by drought and hemorrhagic disease. It’s an infectious disease that cuts into deer populations and the herd had to be rebuilt. It’s still coming back. The degree of damage can be similar to losses suffered by whitetails during severe Minnesota winters.
Q: There’s a serious effort in Minnesota to start a third elk herd. What’s your experience with elk?
A: I was Missouri’s elk biologist before being promoted to supervise deer and elk management statewide. My doctorate degree from the University of Missouri is in wildlife science and my post-doctorate work revolved around the restoration of elk in the Ozarks. I helped supervise the development of regulations for what will be Missouri’s first elk hunting season (possibly in 2020).
Q: What other big game have you studied?
A: Bison, pronghorn, elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer populations in Custer State Park in South Dakota and bighorn sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.