Minnesota officials are searching for a replacement partner for the 2023 Governor's Deer Opener now that the state's largest deer hunting organization has split with Gov. Tim Walz over his gun-control politics and efforts at the Capitol to ban wolf hunting.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association's executive board this month voted unanimously not to support this year's opener.
With about 14,000 core members, the group has been an organizing partner of the celebratory event since its 2002 inception. It is by far the biggest deer hunting group in a state where more than 400,000 people hunt deer.
The Grand Rapids-based group said in a public announcement that Walz's "continued attempts to ban wolf hunting" and his support of "anti-gun legislation" are in direct opposition to its mission.
"Until our governor represents the interests of wild deer and deer hunters around the state, we cannot, in good conscience, support the 2023 event," the group said.
Dave Olfelt, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the agency still plans to hold the opener.
"We have one partner on board and are talking to a couple more," Olfelt said. "We do not have a location selected yet.''
The DNR said last week that the annual event is critical to highlighting the importance of hunting, fishing and conservation.
The statement also lauded Walz for this year's legislative breakthrough in the fight against chronic wasting disease (CWD), a fatal neurological disease in deer that some say could threaten the tradition of deer hunting.
DNR wildlife biologists have linked several CWD outbreaks in Minnesota's wild deer population to infections at deer farms.
A Legislative Auditor Office report has described a cozy relationship between the captive deer industry and the state Board of Animal Health. Walz supported a bill passed this month that shifts oversight of deer farms from the board to the DNR. The bill also places a moratorium on creation of new deer farms.
Jared Mazurek, executive director of the deer hunters group, said he hasn't received any feedback from the governor's office on the executive board's decision to cut ties to the hunting opener this season. Planning for the event usually starts soon after the Governor's Fishing Opener, which was held this month in Mankato while Walz attended his daughter's college graduation in Montana.
Mazurek said the board's decision followed complaints by organization members as gun-control legislation advanced at the Capitol and as lawmakers considered a DFL-backed amendment to ban wolf hunting even if federal protections against the animals were lifted.
"The overwhelming majority of our members are in support of this decision," he said.
The politics of wolf hunting, which often separate along rural and urban lines, and also pull in moose advocates, are strongly involved.
In April, Mazurek issued an "urgent call to action" for association members to campaign against an amendment to a House natural resources bill that would have prohibited any wolf hunting season, and he and association lobbyist Erik Simonson put together a coalition of hunting, trapping, conservation and farming organizations to oppose the ban. The measure was killed in conference committee this month.
Gray wolves are a federally protected endangered species, though various presidential administrations have temporarily changed that status — or have tried to.
Minnesota held three wolf hunting seasons before a judge restored federal protections in 2014. Some hunting advocates say wolves suppress the moose population; farmers and ranchers say the animals threaten livestock.
In 2019, when a similar wolf hunting ban was being debated at the Capitol, Walz said he supported the legislation. This year, according to the DNR, the governor agrees with the agency's new wolf management plan that requires a full complement of management tools and doesn't rely on a hunting ban.
"Minnesota DNR and Governor Walz do not support legislation that includes mandates or restricts the methods by which the Minnesota DNR manages wolves," the DNR said.
On gun control, Walz this year fully backed successful legislation that expands background checks and sets a red flag law that provides court orders to law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people deemed a hazard to themselves or others. Polls have shown broad support for universal background checks and red flag laws among Minnesota voters.
Simonson, the deer hunters' lobbyist, said in a legislative wrap-up message to association members that the organization made it a priority to lobby against "legislation that violated rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment. We made your voice heard."
In response to the association's withdrawal from this year's Governor's Deer Hunting Opener, Walz's press secretary Claire Lancaster said:
"The governor is a lifelong hunter and gun owner with a deep appreciation for the economic, conservation and recreational benefits of deer hunting in Minnesota. He is disappointed to see the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association pull their support, though it's unusual that they would choose to back out of this tradition over gun legislation that would have no impact on safe, lawful gun owners' ability to participate in the sport. The governor looks forward to deer hunting this fall."
Olfelt of the DNR declined to identify possible new partners for the opener, which normally coincides with the start of the firearms deer season, this year set for Nov. 4. Last year's opener events were held in the Three Rivers Park District in the Twin Cities.
John Zanmiller, director of community and governmental affairs for the Bluffland Whitetails Association in southeastern Minnesota, declined to comment on a possible partnership for the opener.
But he said the association, which is the second-largest deer hunting organization in the state, has had "initial conversations" with the DNR.