Keeping chronic wasting disease (CWD) out of Minnesota and emphasizing habitat as a way to boost the state's whitetail herd are among the chief concerns of the new deer leader at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Adam Murkowski, an avid bow hunter from a small Wisconsin town, also told the Star Tribune in an interview this week that his initial to-do list includes writing Minnesota's first statewide deer management plan ever.
Working as Vermont's deer czar from 2012 to 2015, he dwelled on sharing data with deer hunters that was both understandable and pertinent. He wants to do the same here.
"In Vermont we had good data and good buy-in," Murkowski said. "Deep down, we all want what's best for deer hunting."
Addressing the state's declining moose population and managing three small herds of wild elk in northwestern Minnesota also falls on Murkowski, who is 29 but looks younger. He replaces Leslie McInenly, a fellow graduate of the wildlife ecology program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The two now sit next to each other on the second floor of DNR headquarters in St. Paul. McInenly was promoted to be the wildlife section's forest habitat team supervisor.
She held the big game job for three years during tense times over low deer counts and the setting of deer population goals around the state. Finally, legislators last year ordered a review of DNR deer management by the state's Office of the Legislative Auditor.
Murkowski said he's looking forward to the findings, due out in a couple of months. The results should give the agency an opportunity to re-emphasize what it has been doing well and make changes for improvement, he said. During the wait, he will be busy setting hunting regulations by permit area for 2016. As always, the harvest strategy will depend on last season's kill data, winter severity measurements and herd population surveys.
The new guidelines should be completed by mid-May, and Murkowski is anticipating an expansion of harvest opportunities in certain areas where deer densities look more promising. Still, in some zones Up North, Murkowski said he will stick to a bucks-only approach until herd size improves.
"There should be more opportunities in other areas than there were last year," he said.
Murkowski said the statewide deer management plan will be apart from any year-to-year or zone-to-zone strategies. Instead, it will be wide in scope and long in vision like the DNR's new goal-driven pheasant plan or the agency's existing big-picture plans for moose and elk. It will consider habitat and provide realistic evaluations of how many healthy deer a given landscape can support. If more deer are desired, how can habitat be improved to support them? He plans to launch the project in midyear.
"I'm more interested in doing it right than to be on a timeline," he said.
Growing up in Marathon City, Wis., near Wausau, Murkowski started hunting deer at age 10, but only on family deer drives.
"They used me as a brush dog," he said.
His first shots were fired at age 12, when he arrowed his first deer on a family member's dairy farm. As a teen, he remembers sitting in a tree stand, envisioning working as a deer manager in Madison.
In Vermont, where miles and miles of farmland have been erased by development, deer densities are much lower than they are in the Midwest. Back there, Murkowski said, New England hunters talk extensively about habitat. They aim to protect deer wintering areas, plant winter rye on logging roads for forage and strive for diversity in landscapes. They want their deer to enter each winter in good shape.
"That's the approach," Murkowski said. "The conversations always surround deer health."
He said the emphasis might have paid off last fall when buck kills were up in Vermont despite the harshest winter there in 15 years.
"If we can increase the quantity and quality of deer range, we can have more deer," he said.
Murkowski has worked on deer projects in Wisconsin, Arkansas, Colorado and North Carolina. Common to all are dichotomies that develop between hunters and resource managers. The individual experiences of a hunter may grow at odds with what's really going on in broader context, creating communication problems.
Murkowski said he strives to improve communication with hunters by sharing data. As part of his graduate studies at the University of Arkansas-Monticello, he wrote a thesis titled "Communicating Results of Research to Educators and the Public." The paper concluded that the more relevant you can make information the more efficient you can deliver the message.
"The thing I want to do is bring people together to keep deer healthy," Murkowski said. "If you can do that, you can deal with the other things."
Murkowski said his top concern as the DNR's point person for deer hunting and deer population control is to keep CWD out of the state. In Wisconsin, where he worked just before being hired in Minnesota, the disease has infected an astonishing 40 percent of whitetails living in an infectious zone west of Madison.
Twenty-one other states also have CWD in wild deer. And once established, Murkowski said, the disease is extremely difficult to curtail.
"If you are a Minnesotan who loves deer hunting, taking a proactive approach is something you want to do," he said. "Right now you have something more precious than gold and that's a healthy deer herd."
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213