Disgruntled Minnesota deer hunters have persuaded the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to reassess its deer population goals after last fall’s 7 percent decline in the deer harvest. Final harvest figures were announced Thursday.
DNR officials attributed the drop in harvest to windy conditions during the early part of the season and to lower deer densities following the harsh 2010 winter.
“Now that many areas are at the established goal levels, there is a general dissatisfaction among hunters with the current deer population,” DNR officials said in a news release Thursday. “As a result, the DNR will develop a process in the near future to reassess deer population goals.”
Adjustments to population goals will be made in time for the 2012 hunting season, DNR officials said.
Minnesota’s deer harvest dropped 7 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the DNR. Hunters harvested 192,300 deer during the 2011 season, a drop of 15,000 from the 207,000 deer harvested in 2010.
Minnesota’s deer harvest hit a record high of 290,000 in 2003, with harvests of 250,000 to 270,000 in subsequent years. The DNR convened stakeholders in 2005-2007, who recommended reducing deer density goals in many areas. The DNR subsequently allowed increased deer harvests to bring the deer population down to those goals.
But many hunters, especially in northern Minnesota, said they didn’t see enough deer this past season.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the 15,000-member Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, welcomes a reassessment of deer population goals.
“The public sentiment is that we have too few deer,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’m hearing over most of the state.”
He wants to see the DNR become more pro-active in managing deer at acceptable levels, rather than reacting when populations are perceived as too high or too low.
“If we can manage more for the middle of that swing, we’re going to find hunters are happier overall and license sales are higher overall,” Johnson said. “I hate to point out that it’s a numbers game. Deer licenses are the primary revenue generator for the DNR. Keeping on top of management and keeping hunters happy is paramount to the DNR having a good cash flow.”
In many areas, deer densities are down about 25 percent from the early 2000s, said Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator for the DNR. Cornicelli had thought that harvests of about 200,000 deer might be the “sweet spot” for Minnesotans. Now he’s not so sure.
“We took 194,000 two years ago and 207,000 last year,” Cornicelli said. “Now we’ve got a bit of angst shooting 192,000. So maybe it (an ideal goal) is 210,000 or 220,000.”
Cornicelli said the reassessment of the deer population will include voices from constituencies other than hunters. In the last goal-setting process, stakeholders included private and public foresters, counties, deer hunters, agricultural interests and recreational land owners.
“As we do this, we have to recognize there are a bunch of competing interests,” he said. “There are other valid uses of the land. This isn’t all about raising deer for the sake of deer hunting. We have to balance this ecologically and socially.”
That said, hunters drive the DNR’s revenue stream, and the agency’s Game and Fish Fund, derived primarily from license revenues, is projected to go into the red by June 2013.
“By definition, hunters are favored,” Cornicelli said. “We do manage for a high enough (deer) density for a couple-hundred-thousand harvest. And rightfully so. They pay for the bulk of conservation.”
Deer densities were lower last fall than in 2010, he said. But he believes windy weather the first three days of the firearms deer season last fall was a greater factor in the harvest.
“Criticize me if you want, but I think that opening-weekend wind really drove what happened last season,” he said. “After first three days, harvest increased (over 2010) every day. But those are the worst three days to be terrible. When half the harvest occurs the first two days, you’re done.”