Minnesota DNR to Reassess Deer Population Goals

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The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will begin reassessing deer population goals this spring.

From 2005 through 2007 the DNR used an extensive public input process to establish deer population goals for all of the state’s approximately 130 deer permit areas. Now that those goal populations have been achieved in most areas, the DNR will use a similar process to reevaluate population goals in 23 permit areas in southwestern and north-central Minnesota.

“Hunter dissatisfaction has increased as deer numbers have decreased to meet established goals,” said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife programs manager. “In fact, hunters are even expressing disappointment in certain areas where deer populations have increased to meet goals.” As a result, he said, the agency wants to revisit population goals in order to strike the right balance between hunter, landowner and other societal and resource interests.

The last time the DNR set population goals about one-half of the state’s deer hunting permit areas were slated for deer reductions. Conversely, about 40 percent of permit areas were slated for deer increases. Most of these areas were in the farmland country of western and southern Minnesota. Today, nearly 70 percent of deer populations are within goal, while 15 percent remain below goal and 18 percent are above goal.

“To a large degree we have achieved what we aimed to do,” said Merchant. “However, many Minnesota hunters are telling us they are not seeing the number of deer they have in the past. So, we intend to formally listen to their voices and those of others prior to setting 2012 deer hunting bag limits.” The agency intends to use the new population goals as an information tool for making 2012 deer season management decisions.

Merchant said the DNR decided to begin the reassessment process by convening stakeholder input groups in southwest and portions of northern Minnesota. As available, the agency will use the same stakeholder groups that met during the previous effort. The DNR will also take public comments via its website. The agency will make a formal announcement when the website’s public survey is online.

“We believe that the original stakeholder participants, many of whom were deer hunters, did a good job listening to each other’s points of view, and worked hard to reach consensus,” said Merchant. “Their input and that of citizens who complete the online survey will give us a good sense of public sentiment.”

The entire statewide reassessment process will take more than one year. It will begin by focusing on the following permit areas: 118, 119, 171, 173, 176-179, 181, 199, 234, 237, 238, 250, 252, 279, 286, 288, 289, and 294-296. Like last time, Merchant said, he expects stakeholders to bring forward their concerns about hunter satisfaction, forest health, crop depredation, deer-vehicle collisions and more. In the rest of the state where deer are at or below goal, DNR will set regulations for the fall of 2012 that will maintain or increase populations until the statewide goal review process is completed.

Acting Big Game Program Leader Erik Thorson will coordinate the reassessment. Thorson is serving in the position until a permanent replacement is hired for Lou Cornicelli, who recently vacated that position to lead the agency’s wildlife research unit.

Minnesota’s deer population has swung significantly over the past 50 years. In 1971, for example, the state closed the deer hunting season because the population was too low. The DNR rebuilt the deer herd through tighter hunting regulations during the following decades. The deer harvest peaked at 290,000 in 2003 as the agency began to reduce deer numbers. Last year’s harvest was 192,300, down 7 percent from the previous year and 15,000 fewer than the 2010 harvest.

Nationally, deer managers look at deer density goals as a societal issue more so than a biological issue. Deer are capable of achieving high densities, so are generally managed at a level of social tolerance rather than managed for the maximum number that can be supported by the habitat. This involves balancing desires of hunters, wildlife watchers and others who may support higher deer densities with those of farmers, foresters or others who experience conflicts with deer who may favor lower deer densities.

White-tailed deer are an important resource to the state of Minnesota. Nearly 500,000 individuals hunt deer and countless other people enjoy viewing deer in the state.