Anderson: DNR tells Minnesota hunters to get used to low deer numbers in the northeast

Star Tribune/TNS
·5 min read

Department of Natural Resources big-game managers held an online chat Wednesday evening about depleted whitetail populations in northeast Minnesota, and their message to frustrated hunters was, "Get used to it.''

In fact, the webinar — part of the DNR's deer population goal-setting process — wasn't so much about deer as it was about moose, the agency's big-game animal du jour.

Never mind the odds are stacked against the state's remnant moose population. Shorter, warmer winters. Tick infestations. Wolves. Bears. Liver flukes. Bacterial infections.

Each kills moose, adults and calves alike.

But it's deer the DNR has in its moose-benefiting crosshairs, saying — correctly — that while whitetails can carry (and spread) brainworm benignly, the parasite poses a major threat to moose survival in the northeast.

So, despite the hue and cry of deer hunters who have seen their tradition nose-dive in the northeast in recent years, thanks to perennially low whitetail numbers, the DNR is happy enough with the status quo.

"In developing the (proposed deer-population goals for the northeast) we realized deer hunters wanted more deer,'' DNR big game program leader Barb Keller said at the outset of Wednesday evening's 1.5-hour webinar. But, Keller said, "Moose ... did inform these deer population goals.''

In the region's six Deer Permit Areas (DPAs), the DNR proposes a marginal population increase in only one, DPA 133.

How rare are deer in the northeast?

Last year, hunters killed fewer than .3 of an animal per square mile, down significantly from a still-meager .9 as recently as 2011.

Statewide, the deer harvest average is 2.5 per square mile.

"Compared with other areas of the state, we're dealing with a very low harvest,'' Keller said.

Left unsaid during the webinar was that moose enjoy greater favor among the broader public than deer do. This support translates into political cache that resonates throughout the DNR, to Gov. Tim Walz's office and beyond.

The moose's wide-ranging popularity also is why the DNR is reluctant to attempt to recover deer populations in the northeast by intensified forest habitat management — admittedly a long shot, anyway, given the northeast's periodic deer-killing winters.

Deer in parts of the northeast already are at levels well below those called for in the DNR's 2011 moose management plan, which recommended whitetails in the moose zone shouldn't exceed 10 animals per square mile.

Turns out, the 10-per-square-mile limit was just a guess, the DNR said Wednesday.

"We actually don't know'' what level deer populations should be in the moose zone, was the new message.

Most straightforward among webinar presenters Wednesday was Seth Moore, the longtime Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa director of biology and environment.

A respected moose researcher, Moore made a convincing case that if northeast moose are to increase (their numbers, though less than half what they were about 15 years ago, have stabilized since about 2013), deer populations will have to be kept low.

Meaning, perhaps, at minimal levels.

Moore said many deer in the northeast migrate to Lake Superior in winter, before moving back inland in spring. Some carry brainworm with them on the return trip, which ultimately infects moose.

Among Moore's study animals in research that began in 2010, brainworm caused 24% of moose deaths.

Deer also support high wolf populations in moose country, Moore said, which further contribute to moose mortality.

Moose calves are particularly vulnerable to wolves in the calves' first two weeks of life.

Overall, Moore said, "We're seeing close to 80 percent calf moose mortality. There is no possibility with that (mortality rate) the moose population will increase.''

Wolf predation of moose will require "some difficult decisions,'' he said.

"If you want to restore moose in the core moose range, some level of wolf management will be necessary,'' Moore said.

The DNR knows this as well but its managers won't say so publicly, in part because Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a Native American, are against wolf hunting.

Due this spring, the DNR's long-awaited wolf management plan is expected to remain neutral on wolf hunting.

Yet sooner or later, as Moore said, difficult decisions will have to be made.

Minnesotans who don't hunt deer or care about deer hunting might be indifferent to the tradition's decline in the northeast.

But if the same people are moose and/or wolf advocates, and if they want both animals to flourish in the northeast, they'll have to acknowledge that wolf hunting must be part of the mix.

Minnesota most recently held regulated wolf hunts in 2012 (413 wolves killed), 2013 (238) and 2014 (272).

The Lake Superior Band of Chippewa didn't allow wolf hunting during those years, but radio-collared moose the tribe was studying at the time benefited, Moore said.

"We saw the effects of the wolf season'' in reduced moose mortality, he said.

Bears also kill moose. Among moose calves studied by Moore between 2013 and 2021, 22% were killed by bears — a rate that declined between 2016-2018, when the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa authorized both spring and fall bear hunting.

Ostensibly, Wednesday's DNR webinar was about establishing northeast Minnesota deer-population goals.

But the gathering was more emphatically about moose and how continued low deer numbers in the northeast can contribute to the big animal's possible resurgence, or at least stability, and how deer hunters, frustrated though they might be, should get used to it.

Editor's note: More information about the DNR's deer population goal-setting meetings this winter, along with a chance to comment on the agency's proposals, is online at tinyurl.com/2p994ver.

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