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Working toward a better deer herd

t11.9.08 Sam Cook -- cookDUFF1116c1 -- On Sunday night of the opening weekend of Minnesota's firearms deer season, the Dufner family gathered in a wall tent west of Togo. Tending the grill were (from left) Jim Dufner of Zimmerman, Minn.; Brian Dufner of Hopkins, Minn.; and Mark Dufner of Grand Rapids. This was the last year in the tent for their parents and uncles' generation, including Duffy Dufner of Grand Rapids, Dennis Dufner of St. Joseph, Minn., and Charlie Dufner of Hendersonville, N.C.1 / 2
t3.11.14 Bob King -- kingDEERFEED0312c3 -- Four white-tailed deer watch intently as Mike Neault of Barnum drives into logging clear cut where he plans to put out deer feed. Neault is one of many across northeastern Minnesota who is distributing supplemental deer feed to deer across the region.2 / 2

It's a big challenge — crafting a formal plan to manage Minnesota's diverse deer herd. That's what wildlife officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are doing, with the help of a 20-member Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee that's been meeting almost monthly since last December. The committee is scheduled to meet four more times, finishing its work in December.

We asked several members of that committee, and DNR big game program leader Adam Murkowski, to offer their thoughts on how the process is going. The committee has tackled many of the toughest topics, including chronic wasting disease, deer feeding, public input into deer management, the effects of deer on Minnesota forests, transparency in DNR deer management, the advisory process itself and more.

Here are some of their thoughts, topic by topic:

Chronic wasting disease and deer health

With the discoveries of CWD in southeastern Minnesota and on a deer farm near Brainerd, this topic has grown in importance, panelists say.

"(Among other issues), it still boils down to chronic wasting disease and the deer farms," said Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Conservation Federation. "That's a very difficult topic... How can you protect the deer herd and have these 'centers of poison' (deer farms)?"

"A lot of people would like to see the deer farms eliminated," said Dan Butler of Cohasset, a citizen member of the advisory committee. "It was obvious they're not going to have that occur because the farms are under the (Board of Animal Health). You've got the fox watching the hen house."

Deer feeding

Members of the advisory committee, in a nonbinding straw poll, voted 15 to 4 in favor of banning deer feeding statewide, members said. But a DNR online poll showed a majority of respondents did not favor banning feeding, which is considered a potential factor in the spread of chronic wasting disease.

"That's a hard one for the DNR. It shows that it's a complex issue, and there are many opinions on it," said Craig Engwall, a committee member and executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Deer feeding is now permitted in most areas of the state, although it is banned in areas where CWD has been discovered in deer.

Public input in deer management/goal-setting

Deer-population goal-setting proved to be an important issue to many committee members, the DNR's Murkowski said.

"That wasn't really surprising," he said. "Goal-setting is where all this stuff comes together."

A couple of committee members, Cohasset's Butler and MDHA's Engwall, expressed the desire for hunters to have more input, perhaps on an annual basis, in shaping deer management. Both have concerns, for instance, about the number of antlerless deer permits the DNR will issue where they hunt in deer permit area 169 north of Grand Rapids.

"I hunt in (deer permit area) 169, and it's been bucks-only for three years," Butler said. "This fall, they're allowing 2,000 doe permits. Hunters are saying we need to increase the population, and allowing that many doe permits will decrease the population. That's an example that they (DNR officials) are not listening to what people are saying."

(Dave Olfelt, DNR regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids, responded that the deer population in permit area 169 is now at its density goal of 13 to 17 deer per square mile.

"I have the utmost respect for guys like Dan (Butler) who are investing so much time into our process," Olfelt said. "Our perception, based on what the modeling is telling us, is that with the level of harvest based on the 2,000 (antlerless deer) permits, it will slow the growth of the herd, but we'll still be above what the goals are and the population will continue to grow.")

Engwall suggested that the DNR, rather than taking public input on deer management every few years, should allow public input annually on matters such as the number of doe permits to issue.

Effect of deer on forest landscape

This topic is an important issue for the Nature Conservancy, represented on the advisory committee by Meredith Cornett, director of science for the Conservancy's Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota chapter.

"It's amazing what impact deer can have on a forest ecosystem," Cornett said. "It can change the way forests look for decades. ... A high deer population can really increase the cost of our forest restoration work. For every dollar we spend planting a tree seedling, we spend $2 to protect it from deer browsing."

In a related forestry issue, Cohasset's Butler said he believes the DNR needs to do more timber cutting to benefit deer.

"We have too mature of a forest," Butler said. "That doesn't support a healthy deer population. People believe there needs to be more forest cleared to create more food sources for deer."

More transparency from DNR on deer management

The DNR has worked to improve the availability of information on specific deer permit areas, especially online, MDHA's Engwall said. But he said he believes the agency can go further.

"What I recommend is a hyperlink to a broader data set," Engwall said.

That could give the public more in-depth information, he said, perhaps going back further into the unit's history, offering more perspective.

On the advisory committee process

Most panelists think the committee meetings have been effective, well-organized and well-run. The DNR has produced detailed notes from each meeting and posted them on its website, mndnr.gov, so the public can see what is being discussed.

"What has impressed me the most is that we're all striving for a healthy deer herd and a healthy ecosystem," said the Nature Conservancy's Cornett. "We may disagree on how to get there. The conversation has been very respectful even when we get to points where we disagree."

"It gets to be a long day," said Botzek, representing the Minnesota Conservation Federation. "But most sportsmen are not faint of heart in their willingness to give you their opinions. It's tough on the DNR, but I have a lot of respect for the DNR. I think they have a good team over there now."

Butler, a citizen member of the advisory committee, said he's concerned that the DNR is not paying enough attention to the opinions of northern Minnesota deer hunters.

"I would say the idea (of the advisory committee) was a good thing, but I don't know if I see it as a worthwhile venture," Butler said. "I'm focusing more on the northern forested areas and the deer hunting up here. I don't see that anything positive has come from that."

The DNR's Murkowski, heading up this process, has been pleased.

"Overall, I think it's going really well," he said. "One thing that has surprisingly gone well is that we're kind of talking about things statewide but recognizing that Minnesota is a diverse state."

What's next

Ultimately, the committee will make its recommendations to the DNR, and the agency will consider those, along with public comments gathered at statewide public meetings last year, to draft its deer plan.

"We're providing them (DNR leaders) some strategic direction," said Botzek, with the Minnesota Conservation Federation. "They'll have to figure out how our recommendations play out across the state. ... They certainly have a challenge trying to balance all these viewpoints."

Minnesota deer plan process

• From Jan. 31 through March 5, 2016, more than 500 people attended one of 13 public input meetings conducted throughout Minnesota.

• An additional 1,400 comments were submitted through an online questionnaire, email and mail.

• A 20-member Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee was formed and has met almost monthly since December 2016. The committee will meet four more times this fall.

• A draft of the deer management plan will be completed by the DNR in December. The public will be invited to comment on the draft plan this winter.

• For more information on the Deer Management Plan Advisory Committee's work and the deer plan process, go to mndnr.gov.

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