An abundance of sickly and undernourished deer in the metro area is raising questions about whether cities are doing enough to keep them healthy by keeping their numbers down.

“Ramsey County should have 300 to 400 deer, not the 1,200 to 1,500 that it has,” said John Moriarty, senior wildlife manager at Three Rivers Park District, who lives near Roseville’s deer cull and sees deer often in his backyard. “Ramsey has a lot more deer than [it] should.”

Under pressure from an outside audit that found shortcomings in the agency’s approach to deer, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is devising its first-ever comprehensive plan to manage the state’s entire deer herd, beyond overseeing hunting.

And Topic A — in fact, a topic to be taken up this week at a meeting in Sauk Rapids — is the health of the deer.

The DNR planning process, designed to yield a proposal toward the end of this year, is expected to ponder whether the state should take a more proactive role in steering the situation rather than letting often ill-informed local elected officials decide.

“It’s challenging,” Moriarty said, “when one city will [follow expert advice on culling deer] and another won’t. Because the deer don’t care which side of the road they’re on.”

“The DNR needs more boots on the ground to be doing fieldwork,” said Valerie Bombach, project manager for the state Office of the Legislative Auditor. “Some areas of the state could sustain more deer and [in] others, some say there are way too many deer. We didn’t see them connecting all the pieces. They should sample deer for signs of poor health. Other states do that.”

Feeding ban considered

The citizens of Roseville were warned last winter that the sound of muffled gunshots might linger for weeks as sharpshooters thinned out the city’s deer. It turned out that 20 animals were killed at baiting sites on a single evening.

More arresting, however, was what examinations of the deer turned up. They were skinny, and females expected to be carrying fawns weren’t. Deer had been limping on broken bones, likely from crashes with cars. One had been shot before.

The hunters, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) wildlife arm, left Roseville believing that “an overabundant deer population in questionable health still remains in the city” despite all the gunfire.

Their report suggested that local reluctance to bring down Bambi may be preventing wildlife scientists from doing what they believe is needed to protect the animals’ welfare.

One possibility being considered by the DNR is a statewide ban on feeding deer.

Such bans, condemned by wildlife managers for a variety of reasons, are imposed now only in piecemeal fashion across the metro area by individual jurisdictions. Blaine went that route just this spring, and Roseville in 2015. But it’s far from a universal practice and attracts anger when done.

Still, one of the most striking findings from a round of public hearings throughout the state in recent months, said Adam Murkowski, the state’s top deer analyst, was the degree of support for that proposition.

“In the 12 meetings we had,” he said, “it surprised a lot of folks inside DNR how people are putting together the puzzle that when they see the wildlife gathering at a feeding site it creates issues: unnatural concentrations, collisions with cars. It stops deer from going where they traditionally winter and can compromise their ability to survive.

“Public input shows people want us to explore [how to handle] feeding of deer and all that litany of things that aren’t good for deer.”

‘No magic number’

In the case of the Roseville findings, park professionals and wildlife experts differ over how much they should be concerned about the observations and whether deer densities should be throttled back,

Shawn Riley, who teaches human dimensions of wildlife management at Michigan State University, said he’s comfortable letting local politicians hold sway.

“There is no magic number that I can tell you or anyone else can tell you is right for a community,” he said. “Citizens living right next door will disagree on whether there are too many or too few.”

For instance, a lack of deer fetuses may be nature’s way of adapting to circumstances, he said.

Gary Nohrenberg, the USDA’s Wildlife Services director in Minnesota, said his team’s health findings in Roseville are not terribly unusual around the metro. His agency would take out more deer if allowed, he said. “It’s quite a concern,” he said, noting that he can see from his car deer limping around the metro area, likely after having survived accidents.

DNR managers said the Roseville findings did play into a recommendation they made in March to continue the deer culling in that city. Cynthia Osmundson, regional wildlife director, said: “Another 20 again next time would help bring it down below or within a more reasonable number.

“The population in a city,” she added, “can get away from you.”