– How many deer should roam Minnesota?

A three-year process that began quietly last week at the Lake City High School auditorium ultimately will determine whether deer populations around the state are increased, decreased or left the same.

The results will affect the state’s 500,000 whitetail hunters — as well as motorists who dodge deer, farmers who sometimes curse them and wildlife watchers who often cherish them.

And in the end, one thing is almost certain: “Not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome,” said Leslie McInenly, Department of Natural Resources big game program leader charged with the goal-setting process. But hopefully most people will generally be in agreement that it’s a decent outcome.”

The DNR is re-examining statewide deer density goals it set in 2005-2007, when whitetail populations were intentionally reduced in many areas. For hunters, those goals are important because they are used to help set hunting regulations. For example, in areas where deer densities exceed goals, more antlerless hunting permits might be made available. And if densities are low, chances of bagging a whitetail diminish.

The existing density goals, set after a public input process similar to the one that began last Wednesday night in Lake City, have been questioned by some hunters, especially after a 2013 hunting season that produced the lowest whitetail harvest in 15 years.

Some say deer populations were lowered too much. Hunters who spoke at the Lake City meeting — the beginning a re-examination of southeast deer density goals — echoed those sentiments.

“We’re seeing way less deer,” said David Noll of Lake City. “For the last four or five years, the farmers and hunters in the area where I hunt all say the same thing: They’re seeing less deer.”

Said another hunter: “People didn’t see a lot of deer and weren’t happy. I’d like to see the herd increased.”

McInenly told the group that, while hunting is important and has a $725 million economic impact in the state, several other issues must also be considered when determining deer densities.

“There were an estimated 41,000 deer-vehicle collisions in 2012,” she said, citing insurance industry reports, including 342 injuries and five fatalities.

Deer also eat crops, and a survey of 2,000 southeast landowners in 2011 estimated deer caused them $3 million in damage.

High deer densities also can change forest habitat. And disease is a concern. McInenly said the DNR has spent $10 million over the past 12 years on chronic wasting disease surveillance and eradicating bovine tuberculosis from wild deer in the northwest.

Is the process fair?

Brooks Johnson of Monticello, president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc., has been a vocal critic of the 2005-2007 goal-setting process, and the resulting lowering of deer densities. He has launched the Minnesota Deer Density Initiative to push the DNR to immediately boost the deer population.

Johnson says few hunters knew about the process and its importance. He questions whether they were fairly represented on citizen advisory panels that helped the DNR formulate the goals.

DNR officials counter that the process, like the current one, was transparent and the advisory groups included citizens with varied interests, dominated by hunters.

McInenly, meanwhile, said the DNR will re-examine deer density goals by region over the next three years. Besides the southeast this year, the agency will look at five regions next year and six in 2016. (The DNR set new goals in the southwest and two areas in the northeast in 2012.)

Key to the process is the selection of a citizen advisory team for each region. The DNR solicited volunteers for the southeast, received about 100 applicants and then selected 21 people who will review the deer population in permit areas 341-349, then make recommendations to the DNR.

“We wanted a mix [of advisers],” McInenly said, with varied perspectives from hunters, landowners and others, including government officials. Only three of the 21 don’t hunt, she said.

Names of the members are on the DNR’s website (http://tinyurl.com/l6l3gbm) along with other details of the process, which McInenly said is an attempt to make it transparent. Public meetings, such as the one in Lake City, also are being held to solicit comments.

McInenly is also taking written comments on the southeast deer goals until Monday at leslie.mcinenly@state.mn.us.

How it will work

McInenly said the DNR will meet twice in March with the advisory group.

“They will make recommendations,” she told the crowd in Lake City. “We do have the final decision. But as long as they are ecologically and socially acceptable, you won’t see us making revisions to those.”

The DNR will solicit public comments on the group’s recommendations, then finalize the goals by early May. The same process will be repeated elsewhere.

Jim Vogen, 54, of Chatfield is on the southeast advisory group. He’s a longtime hunter and regional director with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. “Deer hunting has been important to me all my life,” he said.

He said he has a good feeling about the process, but acknowledged it will be impossible to please everyone.

“You’ll never get five hunters in one room to agree on anything,” he said.

Johnson also attended the meeting and, after hearing McInenly describe the process, said his fears have been somewhat allayed. Marty Stubstad of Rochester, a member of his bowhunting group, was named to the advisory panel.

“We’ll see how it plays out,” Johnson said.