Articles and Media CoverageMinnesota deer debate: Too many or not enough?
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Minnesota deer debate: Too many or not enough?

FROM Duluth News Tribune
February 2, 2014

You could hear the complaints wherever hunters gathered last fall. Deer numbers, they said, were dismal. Way down. Hunters weren’t seeing deer. They were seeing few tracks. In Northeastern Minnesota, many said they saw more wolf tracks than deer tracks.

You could hear the complaints wherever hunters gathered last fall. Deer numbers, they said, were dismal. Way down. Hunters weren’t seeing deer. They were seeing few tracks. In Northeastern Minnesota, many said they saw more wolf tracks than deer tracks.

The firearms deer kill was down about 17 percent in northern Minnesota, and down 6.5 percent statewide. Registrations across much of Northeastern Minnesota were down to levels not seen since the late 1990s. A petition is circulating the state in which deer hunters “demand that deer density goals be substantially revised and increased on a timely manner …”

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said his membership is unhappy.

“They’re definitely of the opinion that the deer population has plunged lower than they would prefer,” Johnson said. “I haven’t found an area of the state yet where people think there’s enough deer.”

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials say they recognize some hunters aren’t happy.

“We do know there’s a segment of hunters who are disappointed with the deer densities they’re experiencing,” said Leslie

McInenly, the DNR’s big game program leader. “I know that doesn’t reflect all hunters. We are revisiting population goals, but that may not be as quick as some folks would like to see.”

Highs and lows

In the past 20 years, the deer population has fluctuated widely in Northeastern Minnesota. The population dropped dramatically following back-to-back severe winters in the mid-1990s. But by the mid-2000s, deer numbers were at all-time highs. Hunters were happy, but deer were causing problems for foresters, gardeners, farmers and drivers.

Deer were so numerous that the DNR held deer population goal-setting meetings in 2005 and 2006 to gather input from a variety of stakeholders. Those groups, in many cases, recommended the DNR reduce population goals by as much as 25 percent.

Hunters were happy to help, using available antlerless deer permits to take lots of deer. The population was brought down. But at the same time, especially in Northeastern Minnesota, some moderate to severe winters also took a toll on the deer herd. Last year’s extended winter, with as much as 50 inches of snow through April, resulted in more deer losses and poor fawn production.

“Unfortunately, I think we were caught by circumstances,” MDHA’s Johnson said. “In most areas of the state, the population has sunk way below goal.”

DNR officials had recognized the deer population was declining before last fall’s hunt and offered far fewer antlerless deer permits. But that wasn’t going to change deer numbers immediately.

“We’re working to recover the population,” said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids. “We need a little help from our winter weather.”

Follow-up deer population goal-setting meetings were held with stakeholders in the past two years in parts of Northeastern Minnesota. Most of those panels recommended keeping goals where they were or increasing them only slightly, Lightfoot said. But many hunters want more deer.

Changing expectations?

Lightfoot thinks hunters’ expectations are changing.

“Hunters base their satisfaction in the current season with what they think of historical seasons,” he said. “For many people, that’s an eight- or 10-year time frame. The good old days are 2004 and 2005, when populations weren’t sustainable, when we had a lot of (deer) damage to trees… I think many people compared this year and last year to the mid-2000s, and we may never see those again.”

MDHA’s Johnson thinks many deer hunters want a return to the glory years of the mid-2000s.

“It’s human nature,” Johnson said. “You want to return to the land of plenty.”

He proposes a deer population managed primarily to satisfy hunters.

“Instead of looking at the number of deer you have and saying, ‘How many can you harvest?’ you look at the interest or need for harvest and say, ‘How do you raise the number of deer necessary to allow that harvest?’” he said. “It’s a paradigm shift. Not everyone is going to like that idea.”

Impacts on the forest

Maintaining the deer population at a high level creates challenges on the landscape, land managers say.

Jason Meyer, south area land manager for the St. Louis County Land and Minerals Department, said that growing a diverse forest in times of a high deer population was challenging.

“It was to the point, in the mid-2000s, I wondered if we could even grow pines anymore. They were getting hammered,” Meyer said.

Losses of pine seedlings cost the county in the 10s of thousands of dollars in those years, Meyer said.

Deer find the new shoots of young pines tasty. Foresters like Meyer learned that they could prevent deer damage to young pines only by “bud-capping” their new growth with paper folded and stapled over a sapling’s terminal bud. The process is labor-intensive and must be done for about the first four or five years of a tree’s life.

“We started a bud-capping program eight or 10 years ago,” Meyer said. “We’re spending more than $100,000 a year county-wide bud-capping our pine species. It’s not cheap.”

Meyer said foresters don’t want to be perceived as enemies of wildlife. Lots of foresters are deer hunters, too, he said.

“I think as foresters, living with a high deer herd comes at a cost,” Meyer said. “With our jobs, we see the benefit of a more controlled deer population. The big question we’re all trying to reach is, what’s the right level the population should be at?”

The wolf factor

Johnson agrees that Northeastern Minnesota’s deer have declined in part due to the DNR’s — and the public’s — goal of reducing deer numbers and in part due to recent harsh winters. But he said there’s a third factor driving the deer population down: wolves.

Minnesota’s gray wolf population had been estimated by the DNR at about 3,000 in 2009, and a recent survey put the number at about 2,700 animals. Wolf numbers were at similar levels through the mid-2000s, when deer numbers peaked and hunters achieved record harvests. Some deer hunters believe the DNR’s wolf population estimates are much too low.

Johnson, and many deer hunters, contend that wolves are a significant factor in deer population dynamics. DNR officials and researchers such as L. David Mech at the University of Minnesota say that’s not true.

“Wolves have made a significant impact on the deer population,” Johnson said. “All you have to do is figure how much they have to eat to stay alive. Biologists say wolves are doing the compensatory harvest of deer that are going to die anyway. I refuse to believe that with the number of wolves we have.”

DNR biologists say that in northern Minnesota, winter and hunting mortality are the ultimate factors driving deer numbers.

“People like to think wolves are driving deer numbers,” said DNR wildlife program leader Steve Merchant, “but what we’re doing in our management decisions to harvest deer is driving that. How many deer we’re harvesting far exceeds the number of deer wolves are taking.”

Johnson said he also believes the DNR’s deer population modeling my not be accurately weighing the impact of wolf numbers and wolf predation. But the DNR modeling is reliable, Merchant contends, and is based on years of DNR deer research and that of Mech.

McInenly says the DNR will listen to all of its stakeholders during deer population goal-setting meetings in the next couple of years. The agency hopes to arrive at “sweet spot” in deer management, she said.

Johnson is optimistic, he said, and he urges hunters to have patience.

“The problem is, it’s going to take time,” he said. “Even if the DNR initiates some stuff for this year, there are still going to be hunters that are going to be upset. It’s human nature. We don’t like to wait. But I’m not worried, as long as actions are being taken. Things will be corrected.”

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