ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources should develop a formal deer management plan that includes strategies to improve and maintain hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities, the state's legislative auditor said in a report Thursday.
The auditor's inquiry concluded that the DNR's current deer population model is sound. Aspects of the department's methods are "commendable" and align with best management practices, it said.
But the report also said work is needed to improve the agency's statistical methods, including more field research to determine how many deer there could be and should be in specific areas. It said the department should provide more information to local advisory teams when setting deer population goals.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr concurred with the report's key recommendations. He said in a letter accompanying the report that the agency is working toward developing a comprehensive deer management plan and will work to involve hunters and other stakeholders in the process.
But Landwehr also cautioned that hunters' and others desire for more information about their local deer populations will likely outweigh the department's ability to collect that much data.
Deer hunting groups that have been critical of the department's management of the herd called for the audit last year. The state's harvest has plummeted from a high of about 290,000 deer in 2003 to around 139,000 in 2014. The number of deer killed by hunters bumped up slightly last year to nearly 160,000. The state has around 500,000 deer hunters and their frustration has grown in recent years as many have left the woods with no venison for their dinner tables.
DNR officials have said the decline was caused largely by several aggressive hunting years established in the early 2000s to deliberately reduce the size of the herd, along with back-to-back severe winters in 2013 and 2014. The agency responded by restricting permit availability across much of the state the last two years to rebuild the state's whitetail population.
But the agency has to balance hunters' wishes against other concerns. In some parts of the state, deer put enormous pressure on forest revival because of their browsing. In the northeast corner of the state, they contribute to the declining moose population by spreading parasites.
"Will controversy over managing the deer population ever go away," Legislative Auditor James Nobles said as he presented the report to a legislative committee. "No, (the DNR) is the lightning rod for criticism about management of all our natural resources."
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