Quality over quantity
MONTEVIDEO - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is gathering public comments to prepare a deer management plan with the pledge it will include the first ever, statewide harvest goal.
And when area residents had their opportunity to provide input on the plan in Montevideo on Monday, not one word was raised about setting a higher target for the harvest.
Comments focused on quality, not quantity. The estimated 60 or so participants voiced opinions that the quality of the deer hunt has decreased, and expressed worries about the loss of habitat, the health of the herd, predator control, and a belief that there are too few bucks in relation to the number of does.
Participants raised a variety of suggestions aimed at reducing the take of bucks and possibly, the overall harvest. Pointing to the loss of habitat in the region with the decline in lands in the Conservation Reserve Program, Nathan Jordahl told DNR representatives that they should be looking at reducing the number of tags available in permit areas where CRP acres have declined. "Deer tags should follow that on a spiral down,'' said Jordahl. "There just isn't as many deer.''
Jordahl was reporting on the feelings of those in his small group discussion, one of nine such groups that joined to discuss issues pertinent to the plan. His group was not alone in calling for reducing the harvest to benefit the herd and improve the hunt itself.
Dustin Shorts, a member of the Two Rivers chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said his tablemates talked about the possibility of a shorter firearm season, and possibly moving it to dates after the rut. Bucks are most vulnerable to harvest during the rut. Shorts said they'd also like the DNR to do more to inform hunters on the reasoning used in setting the number of doe tags in permit areas, and more transparency. "This is a good start,'' he said of the meeting.
A number of participants said they feel the buck-to-doe ratio is out of whack. One said he counted only four bucks compared to 100 does in a winter feeding area near his home in the Minnesota River Valley.
Would an Antler Point Restriction system as used in some portions of southeast Minnesota help reduce the harvest of bucks and restore a better balance, asked Ben Bothun, while representing another table. His tablemates were among a number suggesting that the firearm season needs to be moved outside of the rutting period.
Erik Boraas reported that those at his table questioned whether everyone should be able to buy a buck tag due to the concern about the buck to doe ratio. He pointed to South Dakota's practise of using a lottery to regulate the take of bucks.
Party hunting and cross tagging practices also came under fire as possibly harming the herd by taking out too many bucks.
A number of participants pointed to how South Dakota manages its herd by limiting buck tags; some talked about the quality of the hunt they enjoy there.
Not surprisingly, many pointed to what is perceived as a growing coyote population and the toll the predator takes on fawns each spring.
Coyotes do take a toll on deer, but the availability of habitat and hunting pressure are the big factors in regulating the size of the herd, according to Adam Murkowski, big game program leader for the DNR. He said it is important to maintain the appropriate number of deer for the habitat available to prevent predators from getting the upper hand.
He pointed out that coyotes are unprotected and can be hunted any time of the year.
But the bottom line is that hunting pressure is what matters most for the deer herd: "We know that when you back off the anterless harvest that deer populations increase throughout the state, and that suggests that predation isn't enough to regulate deer numbers,'' said Murkowski.
Murkowski and Steve Merchant, wildlife population program manager with the DNR, said it is difficult to improve the buck-to-doe ratio. For one, it's natural for the herd to include over three times as many does as bucks. Due to the stress of the rut and other factors, bucks are more vulnerable. "Not to say we (don't) have a skewed ratio because of the way we hunt deer, but the one-to-one (ratio) is not a realistic goal,'' said Merchant.
He and Murkowski said it's well understood that hunters want to see more and larger bucks. The challenge comes when you ask hunters how to make that happen. "That's when it starts falling apart,'' said Merchant. "A bucks lottery option is the least favorite of options to get it done,'' he said of survey results.
The Montevideo meeting was the 11th of 12 being held around the state on the plan. Comments are sought from all people with an interest in deer, according to Katie Clower, meeting facilitator.
Everyone has an opportunity to comment on the plan through Sunday, March 5 by going to the DNR's website and going to the deer management page. The DNR has convened a committee of stakeholders to work on the plan, with expectations that a final draft will be ready in the spring of 2018.