Deer population goal setting an eye opening process

Having been a member of one of the first Minnesota Department of Natural Resources deer population goal setting roundtables way back in the early 2000’s I find it interesting that the process is still in place.

According to DNR records, deer population goals were established formally for the first time from those particular sessions and over a three-year period from 2005–2007 throughout Minnesota.

Previous to that, goals were established at the local level by area wildlife managers. Public input was considered at that time but didn’t hold the same sway it does today.

Beginning in 2005, the goal-setting process was specifically designed to enable public participation from a broad spectrum of interested stakeholders in a consistent manner.

I was invited to be a part of that first go around by Tom Rusch, the Tower Area Wildlife Manager, and joined about a dozen other folks from the area in discussions about where we’d like to see the deer population around here and what would be the best way to get there.

Honestly, when I walked away from the table the first night of that process, I wasn’t convinced a viable management program could be created out of a discussion that featured so many different perspectives.

It was a little frustrating but eye-opening at the same time.

I wrongly assumed that everyone there would feel the same about the deer population as me – more deer equals more better.

Walking in my number one priority was maintaining a healthy population – or better yet increasing it - so that when my family and I hit the woods there is plenty of game and plenty of opportunities available to us.

But when we sat down at the table and I started to hear from the other people in the room – from farmers and private landowners to individuals more concerned about deer/vehicle collisions or trophy hunting than feeding the family – I got my first taste of what DNR wildlife managers were (and still are) dealing with every day.

There are just so many different perspectives on what the perfect population size is and how the herd should be managed, and so many different areas and habitats to consider, that it seems almost impossible to come to a conclusion that everyone can agree on.

Throw in the fact that Mother Nature usually throws a wrench into any well laid plans the DNR puts into place and you have a recipe for failure.

Still, the agency continues to fine tune the process every couple of years and I have to admit that despite the obstacles, for the most part they are getting it right.

A lot of credit for that should go out to the excellent local wildlife managers tasked with the unenviable task of dealing with all those differing opinions and the participation of so many vested stakeholders involved in the process like officials from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

This week the DNR announced the results of the most current version, which featured population goals set for 36 of the state’s 130 deer permit areas (DPA).

Those DPAs are mostly in northwestern and western Minnesota but in the very near future wildlife officials from the agency will be sitting down with people closer to home to discuss the white tail population closer to home.

First up will be the Border Uplands/St. Louis Moraines Goal Block, which includes DPAs 119, 132, 171, 173, 176, 177, 178, 181 and 199. The plan put in place will debut in 2021.

Rusch says the meetings to discuss those areas will most likely take place sometime this winter into next spring.

Then it is on to the Superior Uplands Arrowhead Goal Block, which includes DPAs 117, 118, 126, 130, 131, 133, 180 and 182. The plan there will be implemented in 2022.

It’s extremely important that the public participate in these discussions when they happen because their influence on the final product cannot be underestimated – especially hunters.

If you are the type of person who spends every moment of a slow season blaming the DNR for the fact that you haven’t seen any deer, then perhaps it is time for you to step up and contribute to the process.

“The process is not perfect but building consensus never is. People are passionate about deer and deer management. In a perfect world the deer herd would be ‘at goal’ so everyone could be commenting on current deer numbers. Everyone has a different perspective,” Rusch said this week. “A good local example is permit area 178 and 177. Deer are not evenly distributed. Half of these DPAs are public land. Hunters who hunt large blocks of forested, public land are not seeing deer. They want more deer. Some private landowners with a mix of woods and fields like Iron and Cherry and Cook are complaining there are too many deer. It depends on your perspective and expectations. We are trying to find the middle ground.”

Whatever decisions are made during this next round of discussions will be set in stone – for the most part – over the next decade as they will provide the framework for annual decisions on deer season regulations and are intended to be in effect for the next 10 years, with a midpoint review at five years.

Keep in mind that hunting is the primary method used to manage deer, of course, and to keep deer densities within target levels, area wildlife managers, the big game program leader, and wildlife researchers consult on an annual basis to determine the management designation and the number of either-sex permits offered for each DPA.

According to the DNR, the information considered in this process includes annual harvest statistics including hunter success rates, population trend data, and recommendations from the deer population goal-setting process as well as hunter comments and deer damage complaints. When deer population goals are revised for DPAs, management strategies are adapted to move the population toward new goal levels.

For the first round of goals, according to a news release from the agency, the DNR gathered information and feedback from over 700 online survey respondents, online comments, and conversations with area wildlife managers.

The DNR also used a new workshop format to facilitate eight small group discussions to both scope issues and create recommendations. These workshops replaced citizen advisory committees and public meetings that were used during deer goal setting in 2015.

Participants reviewed information related to deer populations, harvest trends, habitat, browsing impacts and public health and safety. They also provided feedback on locally important deer management factors.

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