For nearly 10 years, Lou Cornicelli was in the hot seat.

As Department of Natural Resources big game coordinator, Cornicelli steered deer management decisions affecting 500,000 deer hunters, many with divergent opinions. The job -- among the most visible at the DNR -- is a lightning rod for controversy.

"You have to have a thick skin,'' Cornicelli said. "You get criticized. But you can't satisfy everyone.''

Cornicelli, 46, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., was promoted to wildlife research manager 14 months ago, but has continued to help handle deer issues while DNR officials sought a replacement. That process has been hindered by a struggling economy and housing market -- and a salary that is below what other states pay their big game coordinators.

Last year, an out-of-state candidate eventually turned the job down because his wife couldn't find a job in the Twin Cities, Cornicelli said. But Steve Merchant, DNR acting wildlife chief, said he recently made a job offer to an internal candidate, who has accepted the job. Merchant said Tuesday that he's not ready to name that person, who could start work next month.

"It's a critically important job,'' he said. "They are definitely in the bright lights.''

Merchant and Cornicelli said the pay, which ranges from about $51,000 to $76,000, depending on qualifications and experience, contributed to the long hiring delay.

"I know at least anecdotally that our salaries are not as competitive as they once were,'' Merchant said.

Said Cornicelli: "Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Missouri -- all those states now pay more than we do for their statewide big game coordinator. The job doesn't pay that much more than an area wildlife manager, and they don't have to deal with statewide issues and move their families to St. Paul.''

Cornicelli oversaw the DNR's response to chronic wasting disease, changing deer densities, record harvests and major changes in deer registration.

"He did a good job,'' said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "It's a job that can eat a person up. It takes someone with an outgoing personality.''

Cornicelli said the job might be even tougher for his successor.

"Everything has gotten so much more polarized now. I don't know if it's the political winds these days. But now when you make a decision, you're wrong or stupid. There seems to be less willingness to respect the process. It wears on you after a while.''

The most vitriolic comments usually come in e-mails or phone calls."Most people are civil in person,'' he said.

Still, he said: "We have some pretty damn good deer hunters in this state. They are attune to what's going on. And we have a good relationship with the Deer Hunters Association. We agree on 95 percent of the important stuff.''

Besides knowing wildlife management issues, the big game coordinator must have people skills, Merchant and Cornicelli said.

"You're responsible for administering a season where 500,000 people participate,'' Cornicelli said. "The eyes are on you. It takes a different kind of person. You're out there in the public eye all the time. It's just not a job for everyone.''

Merchant, who supervisors the position, said the new big game coordinator will continue the agency's science-based approach to deer herd management.

The new person will face many key issues. Among them: Continued concern about appropriate deer densities, and whether the antler-point restrictions in the southeast should be retained -- or perhaps implemented elsewhere. That issue will end up at the Legislature.

Cornicelli, an avid muzzleloader hunter, said his replacement also likely will have to consider whether to further reduce the number of deer permit areas.

"We probably have too many,'' he said.

In the end, Cornicelli said he's not leaving the job because of the conflicts.

"I enjoyed the job. But I did it for nine years,'' he said. "It was time to move on.''

Doug Smith• Twitter: @dougsmithstrib