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Morken: What's behind hunter apathy right now?

Eric Morken

Another round of public meetings is going on around the state in Minnesota with the Department of Natural Resources welcoming input from anyone who wants to talk deer and how they are managed.

Hunters tend to make up a large majority of the crowd at these types of meetings, though only by percentage of attendance. The total number of attendees is not even a blip on the radar in terms of being a representative sample size of hunters in Minnesota.

The deer meeting hosted by the local Glenwood Area DNR staff was held in Wheaton on the morning of March 28. Wildlife supervisor Kevin Kotts said the meeting drew about 12 people, mostly members of the Traverse County Sportsmen's Club. General themes that were discussed centered around concern about Chronic Wasting Disease, and a desire for more and older bucks in the herd. Kotts said the consensus was that there are plenty of deer around their area, despite some worry about fawn loss this winter.

I made the drive to Fergus Falls on March 28 to see what the discussion was like there, and only two other hunters showed up. Mike Oehler, the DNR wildlife manager for that area, said their previous public deer meeting on Aug. 23 drew no one.

Barbara Keller, the DNR's big-game program leader, said attendance at the meetings has generally been lower than they would like. The biggest crowd so far was 36 in St. Charles, up from less than 20 that area meeting has usually drawn.

"We hold these meetings because when we ask the public how they would like to engage with us and give input on deer-related issues, public meetings seem to be the favored mechanism," Keller said.

She also made it a point to note that people can also call or email any comments or concerns to their local wildlife managers, and that some tend to prefer that one-on-one interaction.

Oehler had some good discussion with Alexandria's Allen Scofield and Fergus Falls' Duane Rose, the two in attendance in Fergus Falls last Thursday.

Both Scofield and Rose had different takes on the deer herd. Scofield hunts in permit area 240 and had no complaints about the number of deer he sees. Rose hunts the southwest portion of permit area 239 and has with his family since the 1960s.

Rose has about 40 acres of mixed habitat—woods, water and crops. The deer should be there, he said. They have been over the years, but not so much in recent seasons.

The differing viewpoints from the two on whether there are too many, too few, or just enough deer kind of epitomizes hunter viewpoints in Minnesota. What one hunter sees during 10 days in the stand can be completely different from what someone else sees on the other side of the same permit area.

Oehler was grateful for both Rose and Scofield taking an active role and coming to the meeting, but he really had no better gauge on what hunters' expectations/desires are for his work unit. Two is hardly a scientific sample size. Oehler said he does hear from others through drop-ins, email and phone calls.

I've been to many public meetings over the years hosted by the DNR. During the planning portion of the DNR's first-ever deer plan in 2017, a public meeting in Alexandria drew almost 60 people. One of the hunters' main messages from that night? We want more say in management decision and more clarity on how decisions are made.

These current meetings are designed to give hunters that, so I am curious as to why they are so lightly attended. Oehler feels the timing of hosting the meetings in August and March might be wrong too. Hunters have moved on from the emotions—good or bad—that are there during or right after the hunting season.

I reached out to Craig Engwall, executive director for the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, on March 29 to see what he had to say about the low attendance numbers.

He said the meetings' format might have something to do with it. There is no formal presentation given at these. It's more of an open house where people are welcome to discuss anything they want with DNR staff. This meeting in particular did have discussion points, including information on CWD management and suggestions for an expanded youth firearms season statewide.

"I'm not trying to criticize the DNR, but I think a more specific approach would be good," Engwall said. "I think it's confusing for the hunter to understand what opportunity they will have. If there was a very specific message, like hunters could come and it was about the management of their deer permit area, whether it be lottery or hunters choice, how many permits, probably more would be drawn to it. I'm not saying they wouldn't have that opportunity, but it's not crystal clear to it that they would."

Oehler is left to wonder if most hunters find themselves somewhere in the middle right now—not upset one way or another—and don't have enough to share.

Are hunters pleased overall with their deer herd, and that's why no one shows up? Engwall wouldn't say that. He pointed to how different the landscape is in Minnesota. A hunter in the big woods up north likely has a much different view on how good the deer hunting is from someone in high-density areas of central Minnesota.

Whatever it is that is leading to these low numbers, apathy is always a dangerous thing, and managing from extremes is never good. Why wait until things go wrong to be heard? Happy with your deer herd? Let's talk about why.

These meetings are open forums to discuss whatever is on your mind. Be heard.

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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