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Deer hunters air concerns to DNR about population, wolf predation

VIRGINIA — Deer hunters in Northeastern Minnesota probably will see bucks-only hunting in some permit areas this fall, Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials told a gathering in Virginia on Tuesday night.

The news came during the last of six “listening sessions” the DNR and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association held across the state during the past two weeks. The sessions were held so DNR wildlife officials could hear firsthand hunters’ concerns about declining deer numbers.

About 55 people attended the Virginia meeting. Attendance varied from about 60 to 90 at each of the other listening-

session meetings, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Bucks-only hunting is a tool the DNR uses rarely. It is intended to preserve antlerless deer and increase the population. It was last used in Northeastern Minnesota following the severe winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97, said Chris Balzer, DNR area wildlife manager at Cloquet.

DNR wildlife officials say the deer population across Northeastern Minnesota has declined in recent years for at least two reasons. First, following recommendations from the public at deer population goal-setting meetings in 2005 and 2006, the DNR began bringing deer populations down by issuing more antlerless deer permits. Then a series of moderate to severe winters took an additional toll on the population.

Hunters at the Virginia meeting expressed no opposition to the mention of bucks-only hunting. In fact, some think the DNR has been too liberal with antlerless permits in past years.

“We really need to get away from this bang-bang-bang, smacking down three, four or five deer,” said Joe Canella of Grand Rapids. “Everyone would agree we need to bring the deer population up. But how are you going to maintain it? It’s been yo-yo-ing up and down.”

At Virginia, DNR wildlife officials made about a one-hour presentation on deer management before taking comments from the public. Officials discussed deer population modeling, the Winter Severity Index and deer research, using examples from specific deer permit areas. Balzer described deer management and population trends in deer permit area 181 near Duluth as an example of how the DNR manages deer.

The question of how many deer the DNR should manage for was a hot topic at the Virginia meeting — and elsewhere across the state — said MDHA’s Mark Johnson. That’s one reason the group urged the DNR to hold these sessions, he said.

“Hunters were figuring out one of two things — either the DNR’s goals are way too low, or the DNR has no idea what the deer population is,” Johnson said in an interview after the meeting.

After the series of meetings, hunters reached a conclusion, he said.

“I would say it’s a pretty uniform opinion that the DNR’s population goals are too low, for sure,” Johnson said. “They were set in 2005. That’s nine years ago. It’s time to reset them.”

The DNR is revisiting deer population goals around the state, but goal-setting meetings in Northeastern Minnesota won’t be held for a year or two.

Several hunters had questions about how those population goals are set.

“Who gives who the right to determine what the goals should be?” said Mike Zupetz of Biwabik, who hunts north and east of Orr in permit areas 118 and 119.

DNR officials explained that goal-setting advisory committees in 2005 and 2006 were made up of hunters, landowners, farmers, paper company representatives, county officials and others.

In their testimony at the two-hour meeting on Tuesday, hunters were civil but passionate about their concerns. Almost every hunter who offered comments said the deer population was far below their expectations. Many spoke of introducing young hunters to deer hunting and wanting those beginning hunters to see more deer.

Several mentioned that the downturn in logging has contributed to the deer decline because there is less young aspen growing in the woods for deer to feed on.

One hunter suggested that feeding deer — starting in September each year — was the only way to maintain a healthy deer population in northern Minnesota.

Others wondered how DNR management priorities in the moose range affect deer management. Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager at Tower, told hunters that deer densities are kept low (10 or fewer per square mile) in moose range.

Many hunters expressed concerns that gray wolves are taking too many deer and wondered if the DNR adequately considers wolf predation when modeling the deer population. DNR officials said the agency does account for wolf predation when estimating deer numbers.

“There are wolves everywhere,” said Tim Hogan of Ely.

“I compliment the DNR for its deer management,” said Laurie Laakso of Virginia. “But something along that line should be done for wolves.”

He suggested that wolf-hunting permit areas be smaller, like deer permit areas, rather than large zones.

“Then you could allocate more licenses where there are more wolves,” Laakso said.

Lawrence Gustafson of Cook said he believes wolves have become a political issue for the DNR, and said he is skeptical of the DNR’s estimate of the wolf population. The DNR estimates there are 2,200 wolves in Minnesota, down from about 2,900 in 2009.

But Gustafson said he believed the listening session was valuable.

“The meeting went splendidly, I thought,” Gustafson said. “Unless we attend these meetings, we have a tendency to sit on the sidelines and make comments from a position of naivete.”

Comment on deer population

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources still is accepting online comments about the state’s deer population. Go to and search “deer management.” Also, the public can offer comments about the recent “deer listening” sessions on the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association website, Click on the “Legislation” tab.