DULUTH — With the Minnesota firearms deer season approaching, Forum News Service asked Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, for comments on several matters that affect deer hunters. MDHA represents about 20,000 of Minnesota's estimated 500,000 deer hunters. Engwall lives and does his deer hunting near Dora Lake, north and west of Grand Rapids.
FNS: How do you think most deer hunters across northeastern Minnesota are feeling about deer numbers as the firearms deer season approaches?
ENGWALL: I think hunters are feeling a bit better about the deer herd after two mild winters, but there are still plenty of areas in the Northland where population numbers have not recovered to where they should be. It will take several years of conservative harvests, hopefully combined with average to mild winters before we start to see the numbers in years past.
FNS: What is the No. 1 complaint or concern you hear from deer hunters?
ENGWALL: Do I really only get one? Low deer numbers followed by the impact of wolves.
FNS: How serious do you think the threat of chronic wasting disease among deer is for Minnesota?
ENGWALL: Simply stated, I believe that chronic wasting disease is the biggest threat to deer and deer hunting in North America. That said, Minnesota still has time to take aggressive measures to protect its deer herd from CWD before it takes root here. We need to continue our efforts in southeast Minnesota where CWD was discovered last year as well as monitor areas around captive cervid farms where CWD has been discovered. Minnesota must look at stricter regulations of captive cervid farms, and MDHA has written to the legislative auditor twice urging a thorough review of the Board of Animal Health's oversight of those farms. Fortunately, the legislative auditor has agreed to review the Board's enforcement and oversight of captive cervid regulations.
FNS: Deer hunter numbers remain strong across Minnesota, while numbers have decreased for other kinds of hunting. Why do you think deer hunting numbers remain fairly high?
ENGWALL: I think there are a whole host of reasons behind the strength of deer hunter numbers starting with the tradition of deer camp. I think ease of entry into deer hunting also helps. You simply need a gun, proper blaze clothing and a place to hunt to participate. There's no need for a dog, decoys, a boat, etc. that other types of hunting require. Also, while deer populations are at lower levels now, they have the habitat to rebound with good management and don't seem as vulnerable as, say, ducks and pheasants. The shift of the flyway as well as the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of CRP (the federal Conservation Reserve Program) have made duck and pheasant hunting less attractive to hunters.
FNS: As you noted, many hunters in northeastern Minnesota believe there are too many wolves and that wolves are taking too many deer. Do you agree with their assessment?
ENGWALL: I do agree, and it is the position of MDHA to support delisting the gray wolf from the endangered species list and to let DNR manage the wolf. In fact, I went to Washington, D.C., on behalf of MDHA earlier in October to support legislation in Congress to delist the wolf. The facts are simple: The federal recovery plan for the gray wolf identified a recovered population number of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves. DNR's winter wolf population survey in 2016-17 estimated the population to be approximately 2,856, an increase of 25 percent from last year. The wolf has recovered and management should be returned to the state.
FNS: Last year, about 32 percent of Minnesota's firearms deer hunters shot a deer. Twenty percent of firearms hunters shot bucks last fall. Do you think those success rates are acceptable? Where would you like to see success rates?
ENGWALL: It's hard to make generalized statements about success rates because there are many variables involved. That said, if you are looking at the state as a whole, last year's success rates would not be acceptable as a long-term goal. For a number of seasons between 1990 and 2010, the statewide harvest rate was above or near 40 percent. On average, we should be able to do better than 32 percent.
FNS: The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has changed the boundaries of some deer permit areas in northeastern Minnesota to manage some areas with a priority on moose and others with a priority on deer, partly in an effort to encourage growth of the moose population. Do you agree with that strategy?
ENGWALL: MDHA did not take a formal position on the boundary changes themselves, but we were critical of the lack of public process and opportunity for hunter involvement as the DNR considered those changes. When DNR proposed the boundary changes, there were no public meetings held.
FNS: The Minnesota DNR is currently working to develop its first formal deer management plan, a draft of which will be published in the next few months. How do you think that plan will affect Minnesota deer hunters and influence their hunting?
ENGWALL: That's a tough question because as members of the Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee, we can make recommendations but ultimately, it's the DNR commissioner's decision on what the plan will be. It's easier to say what I hope hunters get out of the plan, and that includes better transparency and more hunter involvement in DNR's decision-making, particularly on an annual basis as they determine how many antlerless permits are allocated. It means improving the goal-setting process and setting a reasonable statewide harvest goal.