Guns, wolves cause split between Walz and popular deer hunting group

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State officials are in search of a replacement partner for the 2023 Governor's Deer Opener now that the state's largest deer hunting organization has jilted Gov. Tim Walz over his gun-control politics and efforts at the Capitol to ban wolf hunting.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) executive board voted unanimously not to support this year's Governor's Opener. With upward of 14,000 core members, the group has been an organizing partner of the celebratory event since its inception in 2002. It is by far the biggest deer hunting group in a state in which more than 400,000 people hunt deer.

In a public announcement, Grand Rapids-based MDHA said Walz's "continued attempts to ban wolf hunting" and his support of "anti-gun legislation" are in direct opposition to its mission. "Until our governor represents the interests of wild deer and deer hunters around the state, we cannot, in good conscience, support the 2023 event," the statement said.

Dave Olfelt, director of the Fish and Wildlife Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said the agency still plans to hold the event. "We have one partner on board and are talking to a couple more," Olfelt said. "We do not have a location selected yet.''

The DNR issued a separate statement last week noting how the annual event is critical to highlighting the importance of hunting, fishing and conservation. The statement also lauded Walz for this year's legislative breakthrough in the fight against chronic wasting disease (CWD), an always fatal neurological disease in deer that some believe could threaten the tradition of deer hunting.

DNR wildlife biologists have linked several outbreaks of CWD in Minnesota's wild deer population to infected deer farms. In addition, a report from the Legislative Auditor's office described a cozy relationship between the captive deer industry and the Minnesota Board of Animal Health. Walz supported a bill passed this month to shift oversight of deer farms from the Board of Animal Health to the DNR. Moreover, the bill will place a moratorium against the establishment of new deer farms.

MDHA Executive Director Jared Mazurek said he hasn't received any feedback from the governor's office on the executive board's decision to cut ties to the hunting opener this season. Planning for the event usually starts soon after the Governor's Fishing Opener, which was held earlier this month in Mankato while the governor attended his daughter's college graduation in Montana.

Mazurek said the decision was driven by organization members who complained as gun-control legislation advanced at the Capitol and as lawmakers considered a DFL-backed amendment to ban wolf hunting even if federal protections against the animals are lifted.

"The overwhelming majority of our members are in support of this decision," Mazurek said.

The politics of wolf hunting, which often separate along rural and urban lines and also pull in moose advocates, are strongly involved. In April, Mazurek issued an "urgent call to action" for members to campaign against an amendment to a House natural resources bill that would have prohibited any wolf season. Mazurek and MDHA lobbyist Erik Simonson put together a coalition of hunting, trapping, conservation and farming organizations to oppose the wolf hunting ban, and the measure was killed in conference committee this month.

Gray wolves are an endangered species under federal protection, though various presidential administrations have changed that, or tried to, for periods. Minnesota held three wolf seasons before a judge restored federal protections on the population in 2014. Some believe wolves are suppressing the moose population, and farmers and ranchers say wolves threaten livestock.

In 2019, when a similar ban of wolf hunting in Minnesota was being debated at the Capitol, Walz said he supported the legislation. This year, according to a statement by the DNR, the governor is in agreement with the agency's new wolf management plan that requires a full complement of management tools and doesn't rely on a hunting ban. "Minnesota DNR and Governor Walz do not support legislation that includes mandates or restricts the methods by which the Minnesota DNR manages wolves," the statement said.

On gun control, Walz fully backed successful legislation this year that expands background checks and passes a red flag law that provides court orders to law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people deemed a hazard to themselves or others. Polls have shown broad support for universal background checks and red flag laws among Minnesota voters.

Simonson, the deer hunters' lobbyist, said in a legislative wrapup message to MDHA members that the organization made it a priority to lobby against "legislation that violated rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment. We made your voice heard."

Walz's press secretary, Claire Lancaster, commented on MDHA's withdrawal from the 2023 Governor's Deer Hunting Opener:

"The governor is a lifelong hunter and gun owner with a deep appreciation for the economic, conservation and recreational benefits of deer hunting in Minnesota. He is disappointed to see the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association pull their support, though it's unusual that they would choose to back out of this tradition over gun legislation that would have no impact on safe, lawful gun owners' ability to participate in the sport. The governor looks forward to deer hunting this fall."

Olfelt of the DNR declined to identify possible new partners for the opener event, which normally coincides with the start of the firearms deer season, this year set for Nov. 4. Last year's opener events were held in Three Rivers Park District in the Twin Cities.

Bluffland Whitetails Association in southeastern Minnesota is the second-largest deer hunting organization in the state. John Zanmiller, director of community and governmental affairs for the group, declined to comment on partnership possibilities, but said, "We've had initial conversations with the Department of Natural Resources.''