WILLMAR, Minn. — Deer hunters are taking to fields and woods this weekend for the opener of the firearm season with lots of optimism for success, and for good reason.

Minnesota’s deer population is healthy and numbers are good.

That’s from Kelly Straka, whose job now is to keep it that way. Straka is just in her seventh week as the new wildlife section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“The Minnesota deer herd, honestly, is healthy,” Straka said. “We’ve got good habitat here and good deer numbers. We’re really lucky, really blessed to live here.”

Straka is a Minnesota native and wildlife veterinarian who returns to her home state after work in natural resources in Missouri and Michigan. She got her start in natural resources in Willmar, where she worked in the Minnesota DNR’s shallow lakes program.

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While in Willmar, Straka said she spent most of the week in the field. On Fridays, she was in the office. She shared her office space along Business Highway 71 north of Willmar with the DNR’s wildlife staff, LeRoy Dalke and Jeff Miller, both now retired. She said she remembers how people often dropped by to visit about wildlife issues with the two.

No doubt it influences her thinking today. “The bread and butter of conservation is actually working with people, people working with people to conserve our resources. That’s the heart of it,” Straka said while discussing goals for her new role.

She said her first goals are to get to know her fellow workers and stakeholders in the public and to build good relationships to go forward, she explained. While she will be seen as guiding the department’s work on deer management, she said that the reality is that there are a lot of talented professionals with hands on the wheel alongside her. “I am part of the team,” she said.

Kelly Straka and hunting companion Sadie are shown in this undated photo. Straka is the new wildlife section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Early in her role, she said her first goals are to get to know her colleagues and stakeholders in the public to build solid relationships to work together for conservation. Photo courtesy of Kelly Straka.
Kelly Straka and hunting companion Sadie are shown in this undated photo. Straka is the new wildlife section manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Early in her role, she said her first goals are to get to know her colleagues and stakeholders in the public to build solid relationships to work together for conservation. Photo courtesy of Kelly Straka.

Minnesota has completed a deer management plan based on conversations with the public. The plan sets eight priorities. They include communication with the public, stakeholder satisfaction, good habitat and population management.

Without question, the major challenge facing the deer herd is that posed by chronic wasting disease. The fact that our overall herd health is good is due to the efforts to control the spread of the disease.

“We’re not a crisis state but we’re not a crisis state because we’ve been taking it seriously for several years now,” she said.

“The challenge becomes how do you continue that for the long term? How do you make that sustainable? How do you continue the level of surveillance and management that we’ve been doing?”

Straka said she watched from Missouri and Michigan how Minnesota has taken on the CWD challenge and knows this. “Minnesota hunters have stepped up to the plate in a huge way,” she said. “Minnesota hunters are onboard. We really are concerned about the health of the population.”

She will work to assure that we continue to support the management actions, some of which are not often popular, that are recommended by wildlife professionals to control CWD.

That’s why, she said, it’s so important to her to build good relationships with hunters and the public and her colleagues in natural resources. “You take the science and you bring the science forward, but if you don’t have those relationships we talked about earlier, we’re going to be dead in the water,” she said. “We can’t do it without our hunters.”