Hunters who have complained in recent years about Minnesota's declining deer population will have their say next Wednesday in the Minnesota Legislature.
That's when Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, chair of the House Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy Committee, will hold an informational hearing about a topic of high concern to the state's 500,000 whitetail hunters.
Everyone, including the Department of Natural Resources, acknowledges the state has considerably fewer deer now than it did as recently as five years ago. The 2014 kill of some 130,000 animals was about 100,000 short of the annual harvest many hunters would like to see.
The DNR generally attributes the decline to an intentional population drawdown that followed regional meetings of small citizen groups a decade or so ago. The gatherings were organized by the agency to determine new deer population goals.
Wildlife officials say the groups were dominated by hunters who agreed that deer numbers should be reduced in many areas — a claim now in dispute.
Beyond argument is that heavy snows and severe cold experienced across most of Minnesota the past two winters claimed considerable numbers of deer, particularly in the north.
But Hackbarth, a longtime hunter himself, believes other factors might also be negatively affecting Minnesota deer.
"The hearing we'll hold will be informational; there is no bill at this time regarding deer management that we will be considering," Hackbarth said.
However, as his and other legislative committees weigh various game and fish bills in coming weeks, action items intended to affect deer management could be included, Hackbarth said.
"From personal experience, I can tell you something has happened to our deer," Hackbarth said. "I hunt in Lake of the Woods County, and in the past three years I've barely seen any deer. And in the three years before that, I didn't really see any animals worth shooting."
It's a story often repeated statewide.
Brooks Johnson, president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc., has said in recent months the DNR is the main problem. He believes the Legislature should "audit" or otherwise review the agency's deer-management methodology, particularly the "model" it uses to determine deer populations.
Johnson, among others, believes the model overestimates the number of deer in the state. Which is bad enough, he says. Worse is when the DNR's (allegedly) excessive population estimates are used as baselines for discussions, now ongoing, about whether specific permit areas have too many or too few deer.
Only if that baseline number is correct, or at least generally agreed to by interested parties, he says, can discussions about adjusting deer populations up or down be meaningful.
Also in dispute is the definition of a given area's carrying capacity. Wildlife managers have said that in many parts of the state they long ago abandoned the idea of defining carrying capacity as the capability of available habitat to support its maximum number of deer.
Instead, carrying capacity, according to the DNR, has come to mean the number of deer a given area can, or should, support, taking into consideration such factors as crop depredation and plant biodiversity, among others.
Few, if any, hunters dispute the validity of this broader definition — at least conceptually. But they think the DNR has in effect caved to stakeholders other than hunters concerning the "ideal" size of the state's herd. Some of this acquiescence, they believe, is as much implicit as explicit, in part because key DNR wildlife managers aren't avid deer hunters, and in part because, by their nature, professional wildlife managers take a broad view of the state's plants and animals and what a reasonable mix of these should be, whereas many hunters are species-specific in their outlooks.
What seems beyond dispute is that the DNR in recent years gave out excessive numbers of antlerless permits, considering the severity of recent winters.
• What's gone unsaid in this discussion is that some wildlife managers in Minnesota and nationwide worry that future deer numbers could balloon out of control, if a string of mild winters — perhaps the result of global warming — returns to the state. This, in combination with what is forecast to be a declining number of hunters in future years is seen by some managers as a volatile mix that could result in an out-of-control whitetail population. So, the thinking goes — or went, a few years back, before the state's deer numbers cratered — better to control the herd now.
• Deer management in a state such as Minnesota is very complex, in part because wildlife managers have to set fall seasons and antlerless permit allotments without knowing the severity (or lack thereof) of the following winter. Sometimes they'll guess right, sometimes they won't.
Either way, what remains is that if Minnesota hunters believe the state has too few deer — as it currently does — some action will follow.
Hackbarth's hearing next week will help determine what that action might be.