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Developing a deer plan: A Q-and-A with big game program leader Adam Murkowski

DNR big game program leader Adam Murkowski talks to a group of hunters at the public meeting held at the Broadway Ballroom in Alexandria on Feb. 2. (Eric Morken | Echo Press)

Adam Murkowski has been the big game program leader with the Minnesota DNR for a little more than a year, and there is no easing into things when it comes to managing whitetails.

Murkowski started his position as the point person for managing Minnesota's deer, elk and moose populations on Jan. 11, 2016. He came into the job amidst dissatisfaction among many hunters about the state of the deer herd.

Today, he and other members of the DNR and a 20-member committee that represents a wide range of stakeholders are tasked with developing a deer management plan that they hope to have completed by the end of this year. Part of that process is taking information gathered at 12 public meetings around the state, including one held in Alexandria on Feb. 2.

Almost 60 people, predominantly hunters, showed up that night to share their opinions on the deer herd and ideas they have on what the deer plan should include.

A story on topics brought up at the meeting ran in the Feb. 8 issue of the Echo Press. Murkowski sat down for an interview with the newspaper after the meeting. Here's more of what he had to say, with this conversation being edited for clarity and length.

EM: This is the third of the 12 public meetings the DNR has hosted. What are a few of the major points you have seen develop from them so far?

MURKOWSKI: I think the overriding theme that I've gotten from these meetings is folks have been very receptive to how we've been holding the meetings. We really want them to talk amongst themselves and brainstorm. That's been terrific. I think we've gotten the kind of feedback that we were looking for and that's going to ensure that we can incorporate that as we develop the deer plan. Then people can help us move the ball after the plan's been formed. My main takeaway has been very much pleased as to how we've been running these meetings and just the conversations they've been having and the meaningful input they've given us.

EM: One major point brought up tonight by hunters was that they want more transparency from the DNR on how money is spent and also how and why decisions are made the way they are. How much have you heard that and how important is it in improving relationships between hunters and the DNR?

MURKOWSKI: I'm coming up on a year in the position, and one thing I did right away when I got hired was go around and talk to hunters and other folks. That was a common theme then, was that there was a lot of relationship building that needed to occur. Folks felt like maybe they were being listened to but not heard. I think we heard that during pre-scoping too when we talked to organizations.

I think when folks say transparency, I think that really means they want some clarifications on how we're making decisions. What processes are in place to make those decisions? Most importantly, they want opportunities to be involved in that. I don't think that's because they want to disagree with what we're doing, but I feel like a lot of folks feel like there's missed opportunities there to collaborate with the DNR on a lot of these issues. Being transparent means you're communicating, you're engaging with folks, and that just naturally creates opportunity for folks to work together and do some things that maybe you couldn't if you were going it alone. I suspect the deer plan will talk heavily about, maybe not transparency as a stand alone or big bolded word, but I do think it will talk about the types of things that relate to transparency and relate to how we engage hunters in the process going forward.

EM: Judging from tonight, it sounds like many hunters are ready and willing to be more engaged and give the DNR information they are seeing from the field.

MURKOWSKI: I think, if anything, hunters have more desire to help us. Not just with input, but help us on issues than what we maybe have the capacity to really take advantage of. I think about all the challenges facing the future of deer and deer hunting, and we need hunters to be leaders there. To some degree, I think the DNR needs to help facilitate that happening.

I'm a deer hunter. I mostly only hunt deer, so I understand. I think folks have all this energy. We need to do a better job of putting it to work, and we need to do a better job of helping them find common ground with some folks that they normally wouldn't collaborate with. I think about, like, the nature conservancy, the county land commissioners, the farm bureau. All these folks share some common ground, and if we can pair the passion of deer hunters with those organizations, then we can really do some really good things that folks maybe didn't think were possible.

EM: What is it that keeps the DNR from being able to get that information from hunters? Why aren't you able to take advantage of the kind of information that they seem to want to give?

MURKOWSKI: My experiences talking with hunters suggest that they are all very eager to contribute to the betterment of the resource. This is terrific as without this dedication, we won't be able to enhance the resource for future generations. Finding constructive ways for them to contribute is a challenge in the sense that I wish we could put them all to work, but finding ways and doing so has obvious hurdles to overcome. Thus, I don't think it is a matter of getting information from hunters so much as it is an issue with being able to put their great potential into things that have on-the-ground impact in addition to sharing information with the DNR.

EM: When it was first announced that there would be this process of developing a deer plan, CWD hadn't been discovered yet in Southeastern Minnesota. How has that changed things?

MURKOWSKI: I think I've been pretty vocal since we've been coming here that a healthy deer herd is critically important to the future of deer and deer hunting. I'm from Wisconsin, so I think I have a lot of firsthand knowledge about what that does to your personal hunting satisfaction to what that does to deer herds.

I just turned 30. They found CWD my second year hunting when I was 12 or 13. Just what's happened in Wisconsin in that short period of time is really scary to think about what's going to happen in the next 15-20 years. We were talking about that. We heard from folks even before the CWD was discovered. The Quality Deer Management Association was big on deer herd health before the disease was discovered. Bluffland Whitetails was big on whitetail health before the disease was discovered, and a lot of other organizations were recognizing that as a top priority.

Then we discover the disease and that reaffirms that idea that this is a real threat to the future of deer and deer hunting. We need to be keeping the whole of Minnesota disease free into perpetuity. I think it's certainly created a situation where folks want to talk about it sooner rather than later, but it's not something we haven't been talking about.

Quite frankly, it's a big-time problem, and we need people's collaborations and support, but we also need their ideas. There's never been a challenge like this facing deer in North America. We need the general public to buy into the idea that deer have an intrinsic right to be healthy, and hunters have a real opportunity to lead there and present some ideas on how we make that happen.

EM: The age structure of the herd and having a balanced herd were other popular themes at tonight's meeting. How much of a focal point do you think those issues will be a part of the deer management plan?

MURKOWSKI: I came to a banquet at the Prairie to Woods QDMA chapter up here, so I know there have been a lot of folks working to promote a diversified buck-age structure in their deer herd. They're very much a hunting community right around here. I think that's something we've lost in a lot of places, so I think that's had a lot of positive impacts and another reason you have a lot of people here tonight is these folks are a hunting community year around. That's been good for me to see, and I certainly appreciate the conversations they bring forth because it's one about maintaining an overall healthy deer herd and not just, "We want big bucks for the sake of having big bucks." I think that would be a message for other hunters to hear.

We'll have to see how that shakes out in terms of the deer plan because we have a lot of conversations yet to be had regarding how we go about achieving certain objectives or what our objectives should be. Part of that is going to be influenced by the information we get in these meetings.

EM: You mentioned specific groups like Prairie to Woods QDMA and how individuals have worked to promote a diversified age structure. Some will say though that takes everyone being on board and large pieces of land to make it work, something not every hunter has. What can the DNR do to get more of a balanced herd and age structure?

MURKOWSKI: I think there's all kinds of ways you can do that. I'm open to having those conversations. Just generally speaking about deer and deer management, I think I'm pretty open minded. I think we should be continuously working to improve what we're doing. I'm open to ideas and conversations folks want to have on how to achieve that as long as we're not doing it in a piecemeal fashion across the state. I think we'll have to see. At the same time, I think it's important that people go out and have fun. I don't think we want to create situations where people aren't having fun deer hunting.

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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