Deer hunters have a right to be surprised.

The proposal last week from the Department of Natural Resources to lower deer densities while reconfiguring deer permit areas for this fall in a broad swath of northeast Minnesota was a shocker, especially considering many hunters across that area have had trouble in past seasons even seeing a deer, much less killing one.

Now, the DNR says deer densities in a newly defined "moose region'' will be kept at about the same levels hunters have seen in recent years — levels that in some instances are at or near modern-day lows.

The point, the DNR says, is to reduce conflicts between deer and moose, particularly the prospect of moose becoming infected with brainworm, which deer carry.

Deer are unaffected by brainworm, but moose suffering from it often wander far distances from their home ranges, and/or stumble in circles, disoriented, before dying (see video above).

In the DNR's most recent moose management plan, undertaken in 2010, a target range of no more than 10 deer per square mile (psm) was suggested in moose country to minimize dangers to the larger animals.

The 10 deer psm was a best-estimate based on available science. Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations program manager, acknowledges no subsequent studies have revised that number.

"There is no new moose research on the question of 10 deer per square mile,'' Merchant said.

Nonetheless, the DNR, while proposing to reconfigure a handful of deer permit areas in the northeast, wants to hold whitetail numbers in the region to a minimum.

Meaning hunters who travel each November to the Ely area or hunt near Tower or along much of the North Shore, will — if the DNR proposal holds — indefinitely be looking at deer densities similar to what they've been in recent years.

"You have to go back to 1996, and before that to 1975, to have as few deer here as we have now,'' said Dave Ingebirgtsen, DNR area wildlife manager in Grand Marais.

Ingebirgtsen oversees deer permit area (DPA) 126, which extends along the North Shore, approximately from Taconite Harbor to the Ontario border (see map).

The deer density goal in DPA 126, which is prime moose country, is about three per square mile under the DNR's proposal.

Deer hunters blindsided

Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) Executive Director Craig Engwall said he was blindsided by the DNR's proposal.

"In light of the fact that the DNR's deer management processes are now under review by the legislative auditor, it's curious the DNR would come up with this process so unexpectedly,'' Engwall said, adding:

"For the MDHA, it's not a deer vs. moose situation, because we support moose habitat and donate money every year to support moose research. But to propose this on such short notice — what's the hurry? What is the compelling sense of urgency?''

Said Merchant: "Our feet were held to the fire by the moose people [supporters]. There's a sense of urgency that we need to do something for moose. Our information says parasites play a significant role, and we should heed that information.''

Engwall acknowledges Minnesota moose are struggling. In addition to brainworm, parasites such as ticks and particularly wolves reduce their numbers.

Historically, deer and moose didn't share the same territory in Minnesota. Before logging and with it white settlement, woodland caribou were the predominant deer species in the north.

But the loss of mature forests pushed caribou north, and deer filled the void. Incidents of brainworm in moose were reported as early as 1912. But it wasn't until 1963 that Roy Anderson, a biologist with the Ontario Research Foundation, determined brainworm was killing moose, and that white-tailed deer were the carriers.

Still, Minnesota moose numbers fluctuated significantly last century for reasons other than brainworm. Overhunting and poaching played roles in the early 1900s, as did wolves and disease.

In 1922, an estimated 2,500 moose roamed the state. By the late 1950s, the estimated population had fallen to about 500 animals, according to the DNR, before jumping, in 1967, to more than 7,000 — more, by some estimates, than habitat in the northeast and northwest could support.

Northwest Minnesota's moose began to decline in the early 1990s, perhaps, DNR researchers believed, because of parasitic liver flukes, substandard nutrition and warmer summer weather.

More recently, northeast Minnesota moose have struggled. Nearly 8,850 were counted in 2007. Now the population is 3,450.

"There's no smoking gun that deer are the primary problem,'' said Ingebirgtsen, the Grand Marais DNR wildlife manager. "But there's enough evidence so that some people are convinced and others are concerned. So it kind of makes sense to do it [keep deer numbers low in moose country]."

Added Tom Rusch, area wildlife manager in Tower: "This is a moose emphasis area, and from my perspective, we're making the best decision with the best science we have right now.''

Zone good for hunters, DNR says

DNR announcements often carry their share of spin, and last week's moose-zone proposal was no different.

Formation of a moose zone, the agency said, is good for deer hunters because deer-population goals could increase in deer permit areas along the moose zone's periphery.

Maybe that will occur. Maybe not. Either way, it won't help deer-camp owners and other hunters in the new moose zone.

Editor's note: Proposal details are on online at Online comments can be made through March 13. Send written comments to MNDNR, 500 Lafayette Road, Box 4025, St. Paul, MN, 55155-4025.

Dennis Anderson