Anderson: Where did all the whitetails go?

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 16, 2014 - 7:32 AM

Just in time for its weekend round table: Where did all the whitetails go?

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Many Minnesota hunters believe that deer numbers are down because of DNR mismanagement.

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At the Department of Natural Resources round table this weekend, some of the state’s top fish, wildlife and environment professionals will discuss important resource issues with key stakeholders. The gig, by invitation only, is at a Bloomington hotel and will attract some 300 people, DNR and other state employees included.

If past is prologue, many of the state’s most important habitat topics, including the continuing loss of wetlands and grasslands, and with them the threatened departure of all manner of game and non-game animals, will be fretted over, with big (or not-so-big) plans to make everything better.

All good. Except the DNR and other state agencies typically don’t work against timetables, comparing their rate of progress to pre-established goals. Consequently, the major problems detailed and ambitions announced at last year’s round table, or the one the year before, likely won’t differ much from those announced this year — or next year.

Bureaucrats, after all, know that meetings adjourn. Money is spent. And time goes on.

But without timetables, progress can be difficult to measure, if not altogether elusive.

Yet this year might be an exception. Because whether DNR brass acknowledge it or not, one big problem facing them, and perhaps also Gov. Mark Dayton, is the state’s lack of deer.

Indeed, a firestorm of protest over deer numbers is gaining steam from Worthington in the southwest to Warroad in the far north.

Granted, the DNR can’t control everything in Minnesota affecting deer numbers. The whitetail-shortage problem in the state’s north country, for example, is exacerbated by wolves.

And wolves, everyone agrees, are here to stay.

But deer numbers also have been depleted elsewhere in the state, and the culprit, many hunters believe, is DNR mismanagement in the form of allowed overharvest. Whether this occurred by mistake or malfeasance, or because the DNR was trying to placate farmers, car-insurance companies and/or biodiversity types, doesn’t matter, these hunters say.

The result is the same: too few deer.

The DNR might counter that, hey, the 2013 white-tail harvest was only down 8 percent from 2012 (to 172,000, the lowest kill since 1998), which similarly fell off only fractionally from 2011. And besides, some of the drop-off has been due to fewer antlerless permits being issued.

Perhaps.

But it’s also likely that successful hunters in recent years have spent more time in the state’s woods and fields to bag a deer than they did when whitetails were more plentiful. Assuming some truth here, the state’s deer herd might be even smaller than the DNR believes, because in its population models, harvest size correlates positively to herd size, with hunter effort gaining less consideration.

Regardless, to put the issue in terms that at least some Wisconsin deer hunters employed when then gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker was running for office, “There ain’t no deer.’’

The year was 2010, the year some observers mark as the beginning of Wisconsin’s “Deer Hunter’s Revolt.’’

Walker, to his great political advantage, fanned the flames of the uprising when he released a three-page document alleging that state’s DNR “put bureaucrats in Madison ahead of hunters of the state’’ and that Wisconsin’s “deer population has dwindled’’ because of DNR mismanagement.

Walker subsequently was elected, and in the years since has moved aggressively to change management of Wisconsin’s deer herd, though not always to universal acclaim.

Could a similar situation develop here in the run-up to Minnesota’s fall election, in which Dayton will seek re-election against yet-to-be-named opponents?

Possibly, though Minnesotans in general seem more complacent than their counterparts to the east. Additionally, Wisconsin hunters are perhaps more easily organized than hunters are here, thanks to that state’s Conservation Congress, which holds meetings in every county in the state,

That said, history suggests that no one is elected governor in Minnesota without the support, if only tacit, of sportsmen and sportswomen — a category that includes about 500,000 deer hunters.

And right now, regardless how much or how little the state’s depressed white-tail herd is discussed at this weekend’s DNR round table, those hunters aren’t happy.

 

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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