A 20-member group representing a wide range of interests regarding Minnesota deer and deer management will meet Tuesday for the first time to suggest ways that the Department of Natural Resources can improve oversight of the state’s estimated 1 million whitetails.
The Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee is an outgrowth of a report issued in May by the Legislative Auditor that generally validated the way the DNR manages deer, while also suggesting improvements to its practices and methodology.
In the interview below, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division Director Jim Leach and DNR big game program leader Adam Murkowski discuss expectations of the advisory group, which will meet throughout most of 2017 before finalizing suggested deer management changes to the DNR.
Q The Legislative Auditor’s report on DNR deer management included various recommendations. Suggested were improvements to what the auditor identified as “weaknesses in the DNR’s statistical methods, data resources, records management and validation of its deer estimate.” To the last point, the audit recommended that more information be gathered by the DNR to validate deer population estimates. Development of a deer management plan also was recommended. How are you prioritizing the DNR’s responses?
Murkowski The audit said Minnesota would benefit from a big-picture view of deer management and that we need to engage people and work collaboratively with them to make sure the resource is improving continuously. That’s why we formed the 20-member Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee, whose first meeting is Tuesday.
Q The audit recommended ways to improve validity of DNR deer population estimates, which some hunters have criticized, including gathering age data of hunter-harvested deer. The audit was complete in May. Did the DNR gather these data this fall?
Leach We have a finite amount of staff time, and we chose this fall to direct a significant amount of it to deer-disease monitoring in the southeast. We felt that monitoring the herd was critical. If in the planning process with the advisory committee, the public says we need to collect more data annually, we might do it, or we might ask the Legislature for funds to do it.
Q So the DNR is picking and choosing from the auditor’s recommendations?
Leach We can’t do everything at once. We wanted to ease into this and see what the public is saying.
Q Many hunters want the DNR to set a statewide deer harvest goal, and some have suggested 225,000, which would be significantly higher than it is now or has been in recent years. Will a harvest goal be an outcome of the committee meetings?
Leach I think the meeting process will produce a suggested harvest number.
Q The audit made some specific management recommendations, but it didn’t say anything about forming a committee. Yet since the audit’s release in May, formation of that committee appears to be the DNR’s sole audit response.
Leach We formed the committee because we want to do a good job of soliciting various opinions on deer management in the state.
Q The auditor acknowledged that the DNR deer population modeling method “is sound and aspects of its methods to estimate deer populations are commendable and align with best management practices.” But the audit suggested, among other things, that the DNR perhaps does too little “ground proofing” of its deer-population model, which it could do by more regularly counting deer from helicopters in winter, or from roads, and/or by gathering more data on hunter-killed deer. Will the advisory committee weigh in on specific management practices such as these?
Leach The advisory committee will likely recommend various management practices. But the decision on whether those practices are included in a final management plan rests with us.
Q What if, for example, the committee wants to expand the “antler point restriction” program beyond the state’s southeast to other parts of the state in order to grow more older bucks in the population?
Leach If the committee raises these and other specific management issues, we would consider them. But we would remind them that each of these would be accompanied by ramifications for the state’s herd or for hunters that they may not want.
Q The DNR has talked about the deer committee developing a “broad vision” for deer management. What does that mean?
Leach In the end, I hope it means it won’t be business as usual in the way we manage deer. I hope the DNR is challenged by the committee to look at things differently. The linkage between deer and deer habitat is critical, for example, and needs to be considered. The abundance of deer wintering yards are a part of this, and the state doesn’t have as many as it once did.
Q How often will the group meet?
Murkowski Monthly. Where members meet will be at their discretion — perhaps around the state. The goal is to have a draft deer management plan finished by the end of 2017, with a final plan complete in early 2018.
Q Twenty people are on the committee. How were they chosen?
Murkowski Thirteen members represent groups, and seven are at-large. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association among other hunting groups is represented. Also the Farm Bureau, the Farmers Union, the Minnesota Conservation Federation and the Nature Conservancy, among others.
Q A total of 215 people applied for the seven at-large seats. This group was winnowed to 30 by a blind review process. Then the applicants’ names were restored to the applications for the final selection. Some applicants have cried foul, believing they were intentionally left out because their complaining in the past year or so about DNR deer management prompted the audit in the first place.
Leach We didn’t explicitly eliminate anyone. We wanted people who would be collaborative. We were looking for people who really wanted to be on the committee and who demonstrated they could work collaboratively. We know there will be disagreements. But they have to be respectful. I also believe that with the broad mix of people we have on the deer committee, a wide range of topics will be raised and discussed, including those that would have been raised by people who are not on the committee.
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