Chances appear good Minnesota deer hunters will get their wish and management of the state's whitetail herd will be reviewed by Legislative Auditor James Nobles.
A vote Friday by a Legislative Audit Commission subcommittee is expected to move a DNR deer audit plan forward, said Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, commission chairperson.
"The number of topics proposed to be audited originally was about 140, and from that number we've gotten down to a dozen or so, one of which is deer management by the Department of Natural Resources," Erickson said.
Deer hunters statewide, frustrated by the state's comparatively small whitetail herd, have inundated legislators with petitions requesting an audit, Erickson said.
"I know my [Republican] caucus has shown strong support for an audit, and I believe the DFL caucus has as well," she said. "Hunters have asked for an audit since last summer. They want to know whether the DNR is using the correct model to estimate the size of the deer herd, and whether other management decisions are being made correctly."
The state's 2014 deer harvest was about 100,000 animals fewer than the 225,000 target harvest recently endorsed by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA).
The harvest falloff last year was forecast by the DNR, because the agency issued fewer antlerless permits than in 2013 in an attempt to rebuild the state herd. Animals in northern Minnesota in particular were hit hard by two recent tough winters, contributing to the population decline.
But hunters say DNR management is also to blame for the decline, noting that fewer deer also roam central and southern Minnesota, where recent winters have been less severe.
DNR wildlife officials concede that in some areas of the state they issued too many antlerless permits in recent years, which in combination with the severe winter weather reduced whitetail numbers perhaps further, and faster, than they planned.
Momentum for an audit has gained in recent weeks, following the conclusion of stakeholder-group meetings convened by the DNR to help the agency develop new deer population goals in some parts of the state.
Some of the stakeholder groups wanted to increase deer numbers more than 50 percent in certain permit areas. But the DNR limited increases to that amount.
"The failure of DNR to even strive for increases above 50 percent reflects a self-defeating attitude that is not remotely responsive to the desires of Minnesota deer hunters," MDHA executive director Craig Engwall wrote to DNR officials.
Engwall also complained that 80 percent supermajorities were required among stakeholder group members to make deer population recommendations, giving panel members with minority positions too much influence, he said.
Some deer management critics, including Brooks Johnson, president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc., argue the DNR doesn't have a good handle on how many — or how few — deer exist in the state.
Consequently, decisions made to increase or decrease deer numbers, and by how much, amount to "guesses."
"For instance, the DNR's perception of the deer herd size in the area I hunt wasn't accurate, in my view," Johnson said. "Where the DNR said the herd was down maybe 22 percent, our survey of hunter perceptions indicated the herd was down 65 percent.
"Consequently, agreeing on whether to increase the herd, and by how much, is impossible, because increasing one herd by 50 percent will give you a much different result than increasing the other herd by 50 percent."
To gain better insight into how many deer the state holds, Johnson said, the DNR should factor more information into its model, including the amount of effort, measured by days afield, a hunter needs to kill a deer.
"It's our belief we're killing back the herd in the state," Johnson said. "The DNR says the important number to estimate the herd size is the size of the buck kill. But we think more information is needed, because even if the buck kill remains fairly constant, more hunters are requiring more time in the field to kill the same number of bucks, thereby reducing the size of the herd in ways that can't be easily determined under the current system."
Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, is a member of the Legislative Audit Commission subcommittee that will recommend which audit proposals move ahead.
"We've [legislators] all gotten e-mails from hunters regarding an audit, and that makes a big difference," Kiffmeyer said. "There's a lot of support for it, and I think it's highly likely it will happen."
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