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BRAD DOKKEN: More deer, please!

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Deer -- specifically the lack of them -- will be a prominent issue among wildlife managers on both sides of the Red River in the coming year.

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In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department this past week announced the schedule for a series of eight statewide meetings planned for February to discuss deer management.

The meetings come in the wake of the lowest number of deer licenses in 30 years. Game and Fish offered 59,500 licenses for last fall's deer gun season, the lowest since 1983, and a number that left 40,000 potential hunters on the sidelines.

Considering the challenges facing deer populations as habitat disappears, the "good, old days" North Dakota hunters enjoyed in the mid-2000s are gone.

That's where the upcoming meetings come into play.

"We're looking at some ideas that might help get more hunters in the field if deer populations remain similar to what they are now," Randy Kreil, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said in a news release.

I didn't attend the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' recent annual hunting and fishing roundtable in Bloomington, Minn., but low deer populations apparently were a key topic.

Deer initiative

In just one example of the dissatisfaction many hunters are feeling, the president of Minnesota Bowhunters Inc., Brooks Johnson, has launched the Minnesota Deer Density Initiative, a petition drive asking the DNR to revisit deer population goals that were established in 2005-07 through a process that included stakeholder groups across the state.

Johnson posted a You-Tube video Jan. 12 to explain the initiative and its goal of collecting at least 100 signatures in every Minnesota county, demanding the DNR increase deer densities.

"The Minnesota deer harvest has been in decline for several years, and the 2013 harvest was the lowest since 1998," Johnson says. "Without changes, better deer hunting is not in our future."

In the video, Johnson faults the 2005 goal setting process, saying "private interests had too many seats at the table" and the DNR had a predetermined agenda to lower deer numbers.

But in a story that appeared in Wednesday's Star Tribune, the DNR's Lou Cornicelli disagreed with that claim. Cornicelli, who is the DNR's wildlife research manager, headed the agency's big game program at the time of the goal-setting process. The citizens group represented a variety of interests, Cornicelli said in the story, and most were hunters.

"We attempted to have a broad distribution of people," Cornicelli told the Star Tribune. "We tried consciously not to stack the deck one way or another."

Northwest view

John Williams, regional wildlife supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, had the same assessment of the process. Williams was area DNR wildlife supervisor in Thief River Falls at the time and was involved with the stakeholder group in northwest Minnesota.

The group consisted of 13 people from 13 northwest Minnesota deer permit areas and included a variety of people with an interest in deer. The stakeholders were tasked with the job of talking to neighbors and community members to get perspectives on deer numbers in each of the permit areas.

The team then made recommendations on whether population goals should stay the same, increase by 25 percent or 50 percent or decrease by 25 or 50 percent.

In most cases, Williams said, members of the northwest committee favored reducing deer numbers by 25 percent.

"It was transparent, and we tried to do our best to balance the interests on those groups," Williams said.

The public also had an opportunity to comment on the goal recommendations. I covered the public input meeting in Thief River Falls in October 2005. Cornicelli presided over the meeting, which only drew about 10 people that weren't DNR staff.

"No one attending voiced any significant opposition to the plan," I reported.

That being said, I doubt there's a hunter in either Minnesota or North Dakota who would say there are too many deer on the landscape. Not anymore, at least.

MDHA optimistic

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, the largest deer hunting group in the state, said he was familiar with the deer density initiative. In an email, he neither supported nor opposed the initiative but said MDHA is actively talking with the DNR to find an accelerated solution.

The DNR later this year will begin revisiting the goal-setting process with meetings in southeast Minnesota; similar sessions are planned for the rest of the state during the next two years.

Johnson said deer hunters need to be patient yet remain engaged. Getting to this point took several years, and reversing the trend won't happen overnight -- especially if severe winters are part of the mix.

"Our goal is to help DNR understand that hunters really are concerned and that there appears to be far fewer deer than the hunting public wants," Johnson said in his email. "DNR staff appear to be understanding this and have been very open to MDHA's suggestions for shifting deer management to one of managing for greater deer numbers."

We'll see where this goes.

• On the Web:

For more information about Minnesota Deer Density Initiative and petition, go to mnbowhunters.org.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 
(701) 780-1148
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