Thursday, May 19, 2016

Will audit lead to Minnesota deer-management changes?

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
There are about a half-million deer hunters in Minnesota. When it comes to a specific user groups for which the state Department of Natural Resources manages, the only one I can think of that’s bigger – in the fish and wildlife realm, anyway – is fishermen.

And for the past few years, deer hunters as a whole haven’t been an especially happy group. The harvest has been way down – the past two years, it’s been as low as it was following extraordinarily harsh winters in the mid- to late 1990s – and many hunters are complaining about seeing a lack of deer from their stands.

Now, we’ve had a couple of severe winters in the recent past, and that no doubt has put the hurt on deer. But hunters also are concerned that the DNR has lowered deer numbers to what they have as unacceptable levels.

I don’t think there’s a single reason for the current situation in which we find ourselves. In all likelihood, deer numbers through the 2000s were reduced too far in some areas, and ill-timed severe winters exacerbated the problem, or at least put the lid on herd-growth potential at an inopportune time.

All of this is a long way of illustrating the importance of next Thursday, May 26. That’s when the Minnesota Legislative Auditor will release a report on Minnesota’s deer-management program. The audit has been under way since the middle of last year, and some of the folks who pushed for it were irritated about the timing of the release. Typically, these audits are released during the legislative session, so lawmakers can digest them and potentially act on them. This year’s session ends May 23.

Here’s what the audit will cover:

• How much does the DNR spend on deer population management? How are these activities funded?
• How does the DNR estimate and monitor Minnesota’s deer population? How do these methods compare with recommended practices?
• How does the DNR establish the state’s deer population goals and hunting permit strategies? To what extent do the DNR’s deer population goals reflect various stakeholders’ interests?

I haven’t seen the audit and have no idea what the auditors found. My guess is that there will be some suggestions for improvement that the DNR can do on its own. Perhaps others will need legislative involvement in 2017.

At the end of the day, I’m hopeful the report will be something of a starting point whereby the DNR and deer stakeholders can move forward toward common goals. It does nobody any good for a user group as large as deer hunters to be distrustful – rightly or wrongly – of DNR deer managers.

These audits have the potential to be catalysts for positive change. One of the last big ones having to do with the DNR concerned a conservation officer conference. The audit found that state money had been spent improperly on the conference. The fallout from the audit led to the retirement of Mike Hamm, then head of the DNR’s Enforcement Division. Since that audit in 2008, the agency’s Enforcement Division has been stabilized and become, in my mind, absolutely top-notch.

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