BEMIDJI — Come fall, Bemidji will host the Minnesota Governor’s Deer Opener, but many area hunters wonder if there will be many deer for them and the weekend visitors to hunt.
Earlier this week, officials of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources sponsored a “listening session” at Bemidji High School and about half of the more than 60 people who attended had the opportunity to express their views on the state of the deer herd and their frustrations with recent hunts.
The Bemidji meeting was the third of six to be held throughout the state and MDHA Executive Director Mark Johnson said that the views expressed during the first three meetings were similar.
“The message has been consistent,” Johnson, who has held his MDHA post since 1999, said. “The people (at the meetings) feel that the deer numbers are low and that the DNR potentially is out of touch with the population. The people also have an appreciation for the DNR’s management of the wolf through hunting and trapping. And the people want that to continue.”
DNR Northwest Region Wildlife Manager John Williams is based in Bemidji and he has left the meetings hearing the same message.
“Too many wolves and too few deer. That’s the common theme,” Williams said. “The deer population has the ability to rebound, as it did after the winter of 1997. The potential (for a rebound) is there and we’ll be watching things.”
Consecutive disastrous winters in 1995-96 and 1996-97 delivered a knockout punch to Minnesota’s deer herd, but by 2003 the population had rebounded to near record numbers.
Spurring the dramatic increase were very conservative hunting regulations designed to protect the females and a cycle of mild winters.
DNR officials have no control over the latter but Williams and his peers expect that the former will be implemented this fall.
“You’ll see some conservative deer management (regulations) this fall,” Williams predicted.
Conservative regulations would be welcomed by the deer hunters, at least those who attended the listening session in Bemidji.
“There just are no deer around any more,” said Mike Laduke, who lives and hunts near the White Earth Reservation. “I started feeding deer (this winter) and only six have come. Last year in our hunting party of 12 we saw only two deer. In my opinion, we should close a lot of zones in the state or only hunt bucks.”
“People spoke about specific areas that they hunt. That’s their world,” said DNR assistant Northwest Region manager Blane Kelmek. “A number of people brought up a different hunting strategy of bucks only and a couple people even suggested closing the season in an area. That was a surprise.”
“To hear hunters say that we should shut the season down is something you don’t expect to hear,” he said. “It is an interesting concept.”
Although the vast majority of the deer hunters at the listening session believe the deer population is too low, many recent DNR surveys of the deer herd indicate that the population is within the goal range in many permit areas.
About a decade ago, deer population goals were determined for the different permit areas throughout the state and those goals, which were crafted by hunters, farmers and others with ties to the deer herd, were tools DNR officials used to determine the hunting regulations for the upcoming season.
Most of the population graphs displayed by DNR officials at the session indicated that last year’s pre-fawn deer populations fell within the goal ranges.
And that caught most of the people by surprise.
“When they were showing the goals and harvest information for the different areas, most of the graphs showed that the population goals were in range,” Johnson said. “And when people look at that they say ‘You have to be kidding.’ Number 1, people don’t believe that the deer are within the goal and, number 2, if the graph is accurate, people wonder why we are managing for that (low) number of deer.
“And that leads to the next step in the process: revising the population goals,” Johnson continued. “That is in the works but one thing the DNR didn’t really point out (ahead of time) is that they are going to be revising these goals. My hope is that DNR is going to increase the number of deer per unit area because what we have now isn’t enough.”
All of the population goals will be re-examined and revised by 2016, explained Leslie McInenly, the DNR’s big game program coordinator, at the listening session, and second looks at the population goals in the Bemidji area are scheduled for 2015.
No one is certain how many deer are roaming a square mile of Minnesota’s woods and fields. DNR officials spend many man hours trying to obtain accurate deer population data but compiling an exact count of the state’s deer population is impossible.
Among the tools, according to DNR farmland research group leader Marrett Grund, are winter aerial surveys in the transition zones, spotlight surveys in the farmland zones and documenting the efficiency of the hunters. Initial population figures, birth rates and death rates are also used to devise a population model and, consequently, a hunting management scheme.
For the immediate future, it appears that the hunting management schemes will concentrate on lowering the harvest.
“I have a positive reaction to these meetings,” Johnson said of the listening sessions. “I really appreciate the public being open and honest and courteous. And I really appreciate the DNR for listening.
“I do believe that they are genuine in their listening and I do trust the DNR to follow through (on the opinions expressed during the listening sessions).”
And that is exactly what the DNR plans to do.
“It was a good night. I enjoyed the interaction,” Klemek said. “Anytime I can talk deer and deer hunting I enjoy it, even if it is critical to our management. We will take everything we’ve heard into consideration when we plan our management policies.”
“The commissioner (Tom Landwehr) has been very open to our feedback and our perspective as to where things should go to have more deer on the landscape,” Johnson said.
“If there are many intensive harvest areas throughout the state next season, that would be a bad sign. But I believe there will be very few managed or intensive harvest areas this year. I believe most will be hunter’s choice or bucks only.”