When Craig Engwall heads to deer camp — a rustic 1917 log cabin in Itasca County that’s been in his family more than a half-century — he doesn’t have far to go.

“My house is right next door,” he said.

Which means deer and deer hunting often are on Engwall’s mind. A glimpse of the old cabin might conjure up memories of his first deer camp, when at age 10 he tagged along with his dad, grandpa and other relatives.

He had no idea then that his interest in whitetails would grow into a passion and eventually a profession.

Engwall, 51, took over last month as executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the state’s largest deer advocacy group. With a half-million deer hunters in Minnesota, it’s a highly visible job for a guy who has worked mostly behind the scenes on conservation and habitat issues.

“It’s appealing to try to make a difference for deer and deer habitat … and hunter satisfaction,” said Engwall.

He replaces Mark Johnson, 56, who headed the 15,000-member group for 14 years and left to become executive director of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

Engwall, who grew up in Hopkins, is an attorney who worked in the state attorney general’s office, then joined the Department of Natural Resources, where he was a special assistant to the DNR commissioner before becoming northeast regional director. Most recently he was the DNR’s forest legacy projects coordinator. He helped negotiate a 2009 deal with UPM Blandin Paper for permanent conservation easements on 300 square miles of forest, leaving those lands open to the public.

“He’ll add a whole new dimension to the MDHA,” said Johnson, who remains a life member of the group. “He brings a different perspective.”

Engwall acknowledged that some MDHA members believe the group has been too close to the DNR, and his selection probably won’t help that perception. But he doesn’t believe the group has been in bed with the DNR, and nor will it be.

“I respect the work DNR does, but I will assert MDHA’s positions,’’ he said. “You need to work with them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t disagree.” His insider knowledge of the agency should be a benefit, he said.

Engwall took the reins at a time when deer hunters are upset over a declining deer population, low harvest and an uncertain future. And just days after his appointment, the state lost control of wolf management — another hot-button issue for many deer hunters. He flew to Washington, D.C., last week to discuss wolf legislation with members of the state’s Congressional delegation. And he testified at the State Capitol at a hearing about the deer population.

Engwall discussed key issues facing deer, deer hunters and his group with the Star Tribune:

Deer population: What now?

“We have a population that is too low,” he said. Consecutive brutal winters had a lot to do with it, but he said the DNR issued too many antlerless permits several years ago, too. “We took the deer herd down too much. But assessing blame doesn’t help set the course for the future.”

The DNR responded by holding a very restrictive season last fall to protect antlerless deer and allow the population to recover. That resulted in a harvest last fall of about 139,500 deer — the lowest kill in 25 years.

Engwall said he wants the DNR to manage for a yearly deer harvest of 225,000 by 2019. “We think that is sustainable,” he said. The 15-year average is around 220,000 deer, he said. He said conservative hunts will be needed until the herd recovers.

The DNR is conducting a deer population goal-setting process for 40 of Minnesota’s 128 deer permit areas. The process, which involves citizen groups that make recommendations, is similar to one done in 2005-2007 that reduced the herd in many areas and has since been criticized as overly aggressive.

Engwall also wants the DNR to make local deer population and harvest data more accessible to hunters, and he wants the agency to develop a statewide deer plan, as it has done with other species.

Wolves: Regain state control

Engwall doesn’t blame wolves for the current low whitetail levels. “But wolves — and coyotes — are a factor,” he said. “We think the wolf population has recovered in Minnesota and should be treated as a game species and be hunted.”

He supports legislation to restore wolf management to Minnesota. Two bills have been introduced in Congress to do that, one sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

“The fact that it is illegal to take a wolf that is killing your dog doesn’t sit right with people,” Engwall said. And there’s no compensation for owners of livestock killed by wolves, or a depredation control program to deal with problem wolves.

Deer stands in public forests

State and county forestry officials are considering prohibiting permanent stands on forest lands. Only portable stands could be used. Officials say permanent stands on public lands create myriad problems, including the illegal cutting of shooting lanes and clashes between hunters. “There are a lot of different views on it,” Engwall said. “We do not have a position right now.”

Whitetail feeding

Because of deep snow and frigid temperatures, the state’s first emergency deer feeding program in 18 years was launched last year. The MDHA pushed for the program, funded through deer license money, but the DNR opposed feeding, saying it would do little to help the overall deer population and it could help spread disease in the herd.

Feeding hasn’t been an issue so far this year, with a mild winter and little snow. But the DNR and MDHA remain on opposite sides of the issue.

“We’re glad it’s a nonissue this year, but we want the DNR to be prepared for the next time, so we can respond more quickly,” Engwall said.

MDHA: the future

Engwall’s group has about 15,000 members, a fraction of the state’s 500,000 hunters. That’s not unusual. Pheasant, duck and turkey groups have similar small percentages. He’s hopeful he can help grow the MDHA.

“We can do a better job of telling the public the great things we do,” he said, including sponsoring Forkhorn Youth Camps that teach kids age 11 to 17 about deer hunting and promoting wildlife habitat. It’s also a voice for hunters, Engwall said.

“With the deer population where it is, it’s time for deer hunters to look and see where they can get action. We believe the MDHA is that place. We are effective at the Capitol; what we say matters to legislators.”

Meanwhile, Engwall looks forward to sharing good times this fall at his family’s historic hunting camp, where he’ll join his 84-year-old dad, Richard, and others. The allure is more than bagging a deer.

“It’s the camaraderie, that bond with family,” Engwall said. “It’s just a special, relaxing, fun time.”

 

dsmith@startribune.com