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DNR sets annual harvest goal of 200,000 in new deer plan

A whitetail doe stands at attention while looking for some green grass early in the spring of 2016 near Alexandria. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Monday unveiled a new deer management plan that agency officials say will promote citizen input, set a target goal for each year's deer harvest and keep habitat in good shape from the southern prairies to the north woods.

The plan establishes an annual statewide harvest target of 200,000 deer — just one of several performance measures outlined in the plan. It marks the first time the DNR has set a goal for how many deer that hunters should expect to shoot each year.

The DNR hopes that number is about right for hunters who want plentiful deer to shoot, and for other Minnesota residents concerned with a sometimes overabundance of whitetails that cause crashes on roadways, damage crops, stifle growth of white pines and carry a brainworm that's often fatal to moose.

The DNR will consider annual harvests of less than 200,000 as showing a need for more conservative regulations to rebuild deer populations in following years, meaning fewer doe or antlerless permits would be issued.

Harvests greater than 200,000 will suggest hunting regulations need to be relaxed so more deer are harvested in the next years to reduce populations.

That harvest goal is close to the 197,000 deer taken by both gun and bowhunters statewide in the 2017 season. It's far above the 139,000-deer harvest in 2014, after two harsh winters and when few doe permits were issued, and far below the nearly 300,000 deer harvested in 2003, the highest ever in Minnesota — a season that came after a string of warm winters and when large numbers of antlerless permits and bonus tags were issued to hunters.

Lacking any statewide population estimate, DNR officials say the hunter harvest is about the best measure of population trends over the long-term.

"The plan recognizes the diversity of interests, considers multiple objectives, and is informed by the best available science," said Leslie McInenly, DNR acting wildlife populations and programs manager. "It also factors in ways to reduce the negative impacts deer can have on people and the landscape."

McInenly said that while the statewide number is a goal, each region may have different outcomes because of other factors, such as harsh winters, that the DNR can't control. McInenly added that the plan doesn't address the details of specific regulations or operational issues in each zone or region of the state, but rather plots a long-term strategic direction for managing the herd.

The plan heavily emphasizes getting more and better information to hunters and others interested in deer numbers, including enhanced websites that provide easier access to deer data.

The draft deer plan comes after years of lower havrests when many hunters were grumbling about not seeing enough deer in the woods. It also follows a state Legislative Auditor's report that concluded that while the DNR was using sound science, the agency lacked a formal deer management plan that the public could understand.

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association had lobbied for a harvest target of 225,000 deer annually, meaning more deer on the landscape each year so more can be shot. Craig Engwall, executive director of the association, said the group still supports the higher goal, which was based on a 15-year average.

"We still think that 225,000 is a good number to work for," Engwall said.

Engwall said it's critical for the DNR to follow through on using public input while adapting seasonal changes in how many permits are issued — the driving factor in DNR management.

"Science matters to establish the ranges to make decisions on. But social science, input from farmers and hunters and whoever, can help inform them on where they should go within that range," he said.

Engwall said the DNR plan does call for more local public input in how many permits are issued in each of the 128 permit areas across the state as local wildlife managers make those decisions annually, after winter severity and other issues are considered.

"The public is going to have better access and input to how those decisions are made every year," he said, adding that there is also strong language in the draft plan calling for legislation to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease, such as requiring double fencing around game farms.

The plan was in part guided over the past year by a 19-member citizens advisory group representing hunters, farmers, conservation groups, tribal resource agencies and others. But not everything the advisory group proposed was adopted by the DNR. For example, the group supported a permanent, statewide ban on all deer feeding at all times, in large part to prevent bringing large numbers of deer together in settings where diseases can more easily spread. Currently, deer feeding is banned just before and during hunting season and in areas where chronic wasting disease has been found.

"There's a real strong level of support" among the general public to allow deer feeding, McInenly said. "People like to see deer." She added that the DNR generally supports such a ban but that the public may not be ready for it yet.

Another part of the plan includes adding DNR staff to work with public attitudes and public information, and the DNR said part of the plan will include retaining hunters and recruiting new hunters. There are about 500,000 licensed deer hunters in Minnesota each year, but their average age is increasing rapidly and demographers expect that number to drop in coming years, meaning fewer licenses sold and less money available for deer management.

"This is one of our challenges going forward. ... we're losing hunters," McInenly said.

The DNR said it expects it may take up to five years to see if the new management plan is working.

"We're setting a course for deer management that encourages more dialogue among stakeholders, the public, and DNR staff," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a statement. "Our ultimate goal is to support our hunting traditions, better engage the public, and to maintain sustainable, healthy deer populations throughout Minnesota."

The draft plan includes eight major goals, including:

• Communication, information and public involvement: Foster trusting, respectful and effective two-way communication between the DNR and the public regarding deer management.

• Deer "stakeholder" satisfaction: Consider social dimensions of deer management decisions.

• Population management, monitoring and research: Manage deer adaptively, considering both biological and social information in decision-making

• Healthy deer: Support deer herd health by monitoring and addressing disease.

• Healthy habitat: Maintain natural wildlife habitat by protecting, enhancing and restoring habitat and by managing for an appropriate number of deer.

• Impact of deer on other resources: Reduce negative impacts of deer to the land, resources, and other species, including people.

• Deer management funding: Seek sufficient funding and promote cost-effective deer management.

• Deer management actions: Practice and ensure continuous improvement within the DNR's deer management program and supporting activities.

Get involved at public meeting

Public comments on the new Minnesota DNR deer management plan will be accepted online through May 9 at mndnr.gov/deerplan. The DNR will ask people to indicate their level of satisfaction with the purpose, mission, vision and goals of the plan. The site also allows people to give additional feedback on whether the plan reflects the conversation and public input over the past few years.

Some 35 informational meetings are set across the state. All will be held from 6-8 p.m., with people welcome to arrive anytime in that two-hour window. Local meetings around the Alexandria area include:

• Fergus Falls: Wednesday, April 18. Fergus Falls Area Wildlife Office, 1509 First Ave. N.

• Glenwood: Thursday, April 19. Glenwood Area Wildlife Office, 23070 North Lakeshore Drive.

• Detroit Lakes: Thursday, April 26. Minnesota State Community and Technical College, 900 Minnesota Highway 34, campus auditorium.

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