By Shawn Perich
When Brooks Johnson purchased his central Minnesota hunting property in 2008, he assumed whitetails were abundant because his land was located within a permit area that had a bag limit allowing hunters up to five antlerless deer. But when he began exploring his 240-acre spread, Johnson found fewer deer than he expected.
“I just didn’t think there were that many deer (to support a 5-deer limit),” he says.
As the former owner of Double Bull Archery, a maker of hunting blinds, Johnson has lots of deer hunting experience. However, his business connections allowed him to hunt beyond Minnesota’s borders and experience top-quality whitetail hunting. After selling the business, he decided to buy property in his home state and begin a hunting tradition for his family. Until then, he hadn’t paid much attention to Minnesota deer management.
What he didn’t know when he purchased the land was the five-deer limit had been initiated to reduce the deer population from levels that some folks considered overabundant. A couple of years before he bought the land, the DNR had convened a “stakeholder group” to discuss whitetail abundance and suggest a goal for future deer densities. The statewide deer herd was then at an all-time high, so the stakeholders suggested the DNR use hunting as a tool to somewhat reduce the population.
Johnson doesn’t claim to be a biologist or a statistician, but he has been looking at whatever data he can find about the state’s deer population. While the stakeholder groups had suggested fewer deer would be better in many deer management zones, their recommendations ranged from lowering whitetail numbers from about 12 to 25 percent. As Johnson reads the relevant data, since the stakeholder meetings deer numbers have fallen 40 to 50 percent in many permit areas. The population decline is reflected in recent deer harvests, which fell from a record high of 291,000 in 2003 to 172,000 in 2013.
“The general consensus I hear from hunters in central Minnesota is that deer numbers are down 50 percent,” Johnson says. “Hunters have taken it in the shorts over the last 10 years.”
However, farmers, foresters, gardeners and commuters may have a different perspective on that time period. Fewer deer on the landscape means less depredation on agricultural crops, forest vegetation and backyard gardens and shrubbery. It also means fewer deer/vehicle collisions. Johnson is well aware of the benefits of a smaller deer population, but he has one concern. The Minnesota DNR doesn’t track the trends in nuisance complaints and vehicle collisions, so the agency’s biologists aren’t able to measure how lower (or higher) deer numbers affect other stakeholders.
“I think if you want to make a case for lower deer numbers, it should be scientific,” he says. “How else can you find the sweet spot where you have deer densities that satisfy both deer hunters and other interests?”
Johnson is also concerned the DNR has too-little communication with its primary customers—deer hunters. He points to Iowa, where the DNR surveys bowhunters annually to learn what they are seeing in the woods. He says it’s been 10 years since the DNR last surveyed central Minnesota deer hunters. In 2005, a DNR survey found 66 percent of central Minnesota hunters were satisfied with deer hunting. Johnson said a recent, non-DNR survey of central Minnesota hunters he’s been involved with found hunter satisfaction has dropped to 27 percent.
“If the DNR does a survey of hunter satisfaction in central and east-central Minnesota and it comes in above 40%, I’ll go away,” Johnson says. “I don’t think it will come in that high.”
Minnesota hunters may be even less satisfied if they learn what the pre-fawn population estimate is for their permit area. Johnson says there are permit areas within Minnesota’s prime deer habitat that have slipped to pre-fawn levels of seven deer per square mile and that some permit areas are managed for less than 10 deer per square mile. In Wisconsin’s CWD Zones, where the state is aggressively reducing deer numbers to combat the spread of chronic wasting disease, pre-fawn goals are nine deer per square mile.
Johnson, who manages his hunting property with food plots and habitat improvements, says he is able to have better deer numbers on his land than hunters are likely to encounter elsewhere in his permit area. And he wonders, given the low deer densities, how many of those hunters may not see anything at all.
“Most hunters would rather see deer than kill deer,” Johnson says. “Guys who aren’t super-serious, and may hunt only two or three days per year, still want to see deer. If deer numbers get so low that they don’t see, we may lose them as hunters.”
In an era when wildlife agencies and hunting organizations fret over hunter retention and recruitment, the possibility of losing hunters due to diminished hunter satisfaction is at best an unintentional irony.
So what does Johnson want to see happen? He says the DNR has already begun holding new stakeholder meetings, starting in the Southeast, to discuss current deer numbers and future population goals. He hopes he can raise awareness about low deer populations to encourage more hunters to participate in the goal-setting process and to hold the DNR accountable to maintain adequate whitetail densities.
While he wants to see more der on the landscape, Johnson also respects the concerns of farmers, foresters and commuters. In his mind, more deer doesn’t necessarily mean a return to years of record harvests. What he’d like to see is a level of deer abundance that satisfies both hunters and other stakeholders.
He also realizes that counting deer across the Minnesota landscape is an imperfect science and said more than once that he doesn’t envy the task of the state’s wildlife managers. But he’d also like those managers, who are paid with hunting license fees to be more responsive and forthright with deer hunters regarding whitetail abundance and population goals.
Johnson is not alone in his concerns. Recently the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association sent a letter to DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr calling for an increase in deer numbers. The commissioner responded and said hunters in many areas will see conservative, bucks-only bag limits intended to begin rebuilding the herd. Hopefully, within three or four years whitetail numbers will rise to reach that magical “sweet spot” where hunters and everyone else are happy…or at least not complaining about deer.