Last Sunday I wrote about the lack of deer in north-central and particularly northeast Minnesota.
Considered a crisis by many who live Up North, the deer scarcity is adversely affecting the region's economy and culture. Many Iron Range and Arrowhead residents forego higher wages and other opportunities available in the Twin Cities so they can have closer relationships with the region's lands and waters. Deer hunting is a major part of these lifestyle choices, and its declining prospects reverberate from Two Harbors to Hibbing, and from International Falls to Barnum.
It's true that northeast deer exist at the mercy of intermittent tough winters. But their low numbers also reflect the region's intensified timber cuttings, which too rarely consider wildlife's welfare in their designs.
Wolves also kill the north's deer and perhaps are keeping the region's whitetails from rebounding. In 2022, more so perhaps than at any time in the state's history, wolves will rise to the state's political forefront, when the Department of Natural Resources delivers a wolf plan that either proposes or opposes limited wolf hunting and trapping — or sidesteps the topic altogether. Gov. Tim Walz's re-election prospects also could hinge on his opposition to wolf hunting.
Here's a sampling of readers' emails to me following last week's column.
In Deer Permit Area (DPA) 132 in northeast Minnesota, where our deer camp has been shut out for seven years, nearly every piece of high ground has become a pine plantation. And once the plantation's canopy closes (at about 18 years), that's the end of wildlife habitat. For deer and grouse food you end up with dead pine needles. In small doses, these plantations aren't a big deal. When they cover hundreds or thousands of acres, you have a biological desert. That's what a lot of Cloquet Valley State Forest is. This deer season we discovered yet another large chunk of county cutover that had been ground sprayed with herbicide in preparation for more plantation. A new twist began four years ago. To appease Potlatch, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reduced the rotation age on red pine plantations from 125-150 years to 65 years. So we can expect one pine plantation after another. These stands will never get old enough to become beneficial to wildlife by developing an understory with browse and a hardwood/conifer understory for protective cover. In the northeast, weather and predators are in control, preventing deer from rebounding. But poor habitat plays a significant role. This isn't going to change as long as money drives forest management. DNR wildlife managers' opinions about this are being shut out. If the habitat was reasonably good, we'd have enough deer to outproduce what wolves and other predators consume. But when habitat suffers, deer don't have the food, shelter and escape cover to stay ahead of the curve. My son and nephew have quit coming to deer camp. Our family tradition may well die.
Craig Sterle, Barnum
The reality is we have a wolf problem. I have a hunting shack in Wawina, a cabin on the Bigfork River and live in Bovey. I have hunted and lived in these areas for 40 years. I have witnessed everything firsthand. Plain and simple there are too many wolves for the deer population to ever rebound up here. We had the lowest hunter numbers up here in 21 years. Take a ride north of Effie — nothing but empty hunting shacks. I have realtors sending me e-mails weekly with more land for sale. If I was a deer hunter, I would not pay $100 an acre up here. We need a big push from people who can make a difference, or we need to increase our cattle ranching because it seems the only time anyone listens is when ranchers' cattle are killed by wolves.
Derek Vekich, Bovey
For 41 years I have had a hunting shack on the Lofgren Truck Trail, which is between Effie and Togo. I think the DNR should spend more time in the woods than in the office. They might learn a few things. I average at least 35 days a year up there and since retirement more than double that. In this time, I have seen us go from average or fabulous hunting to a virtual desert. We joke that the deer are so few, we take a picture of a track when we find one. Wolf tracks are everywhere, and sightings have gone up exponentially. In the winter a few buddies and I explore areas we can only get to when frozen. Deer tracks are very scarce and as much as 10 miles apart. Moose, however, have really expanded. This is directly the result of having new tree shoots at logging sites. They really feed heavy on these. For years I was supportive of the DNR, but have now lost much respect. It's all about politics instead of science. The DNR's conscientious employees get silenced. Maybe they should try a new approach, like having us show them around the woods.
Jeff Bishop, Grand Rapids
I hunt in DPA 176 near Bear River and have been keeping track of the deer harvest for nearly 10 years. Not only do we have a deer problem, we have a lack of hunter problem. It's hard to get and keep people interested in something when their success is so dismal. This year I hunted eight days; I heard one deer on opening day and jumped one the final Sunday. In talking to locals, their experience was much the same. Additionally, I think most hunters up here feel that wolf depredation is a big factor. We've always had wolves, but now they seem to be everywhere. My cabin is on Beatrice Lake and I've started seeing tracks within 1/4 mile of my cabin and I've never seen them that close before. I've never carried a handgun when I've gone for walks with my dog, but now I do as I never want to have to tell my wife that wolves got our dog while we were on a walk.
Mike Swanger, Hibbing
As a lifetime deer hunter, professional forester and resident of northeast Minnesota, the lack of deer has been a sore spot for many years — not only to me, but to many other hunters. One problem is the DNR seems to manage everything but wolves. The DNR commissioner was appointed by Gov. Tim Walz, who has said there will be no reduction of wolves. The result in the northeast is an overpopulation of wolves due to management by politics instead of science. The "official'' DNR stance is that poor deer numbers are due to severe winters, habitat reduction, etc. These are factors, but wolves are consuming most of the deer that hunters used to harvest. I'm not anti-wolf. They have their niche in the ecosystem. But when they are left unmanaged, they not only decimate the deer and moose populations, they become unafraid of people. The eight hunters at our shack in Embarrass saw very few does this season, only two fawns and no bucks. Our hunting has gone downhill since the mid-'90s, but 2021 was the first year we got skunked.
Dave Youngman, Babbitt