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Minnesota DNR deer leader: Population on way up

A tracking collar allows the research team to study movements as deer travel. (Bret Amundson/Forum News Service)1 / 2
Adam Murkowski has been big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources since January and is now working on the state's deer management plan. He took this buck in 2014 while hunting in Vermont, where he was deer project leader for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Adam Murkowski photo2 / 2

DULUTH, Minn. — Adam Murkowski has been traveling Minnesota, listening. He listens to deer hunters and others who care about the number of deer on Minnesota's landscape.

Murkowski is big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the point person for the agency as it develops a comprehensive deer management plan.

Murkowski, 29, was named to that position in January. He grew up in Wisconsin and most recently had been assistant bear, deer and wolf ecologist for the Wisconsin DNR. Prior to that, he had been deer project leader for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. He has worked in deer management with five states in addition to Minnesota.

His arrival was followed soon — in May — by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor's evaluation of the DNR's deer management practices. Among other things, the audit recommended the DNR develop a formal deer management plan, which the agency agreed to do. The target date for release of that final plan is in 2018, DNR officials say.

One of Murkowski's and the DNR's first tasks was to create a Deer Advisory Committee to guide the development of the deer plan. To date, 12 organizations have agreed to participate with at least one representative on that committee, Murkowski said. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association will have two representatives on the committee, all other organizations one. Seven remaining at-large positions will be selected from individuals who have applied (deadline was Oct. 19). A total of 219 have applied, Murkowski said.

"We hope to have them picked by mid-November," Murkowski said. "The committee meets for the first time in mid-December."

By February 2017, Murkowski said, he hopes the committee will have developed a set of goals that it can share with the public.

Meanwhile, Murkowski and the DNR already are making the state's deer management more transparent, primarily through online efforts. New "Deer Management" and "Deer Plan" pages (both at mndnr.gov) keep the public informed on deer management issues. In addition, hunters and others may subscribe to receive regular email updates from Murkowski.

Forum News Service had a chance recently to ask Murkowski about the coming deer season and other issues.

FNS: How would you assess the state of Minnesota's deer herd, particularly in northeastern Minnesota?

MURKOWSKI: We've had two consecutive mild winters coupled with conservative harvest regulations. That will result in increased deer populations and slightly increased hunting opportunities for hunters. ... We know that in the northeastern part of the state, deer numbers were down after those severe winters. We've made a lot of progress getting back toward the goals agreed to in the 2015 goal-setting process.

FNS: The DNR is offering some antlerless permits this fall after primarily bucks-only hunting in the past two years.

MURKOWSKI: We want to maintain the appropriate number of deer on the landscape that's good for deer and good for deer hunters. A lot of hunters are interested in antlerless deer. It's really important for hunters to take advantage of those antlerless permits to take those deer.

FNS: Do you think the DNR has the trust of most deer hunters in the way the deer herd is being managed?

MURKOWSKI: Even among deer hunters, it's hard to find folks that agree (with each other). Everyone's got a view that this or that would be the ideal situation. I don't know that you can ever get away from that. What I can tell you is that since I've come here in January, I've met with all kinds of organizations. Folks are eager to work with the DNR on these big issues. For me, personally, going out and engaging with folks, I've been extremely warmly welcomed. I'm really excited to be in this position with the kind of folks I've met.

FNS: What else did those organizations tell you they want from the DNR in terms of deer management?

MURKOWSKI: They wanted more information, readily available. That's not just hunters but farmers as well. The legislative audit made recommendations about increasing our communication. That's important from an online perspective, but we also wanted a way where, going into the deer plan process, folks could have that information.

FNS: The DNR has set up new web pages to keep the public informed. Are those web pages attracting visitors?

MURKOWSKI: In October, through the 16th, our (DNR) home page has had 60,260 views. The hunting page has had 52,000 views. The deer-plan page has gotten about 2,700.

FNS: Describe what you see as the scope of the deer plan.

MURKOWSKI: Hunters are used to talking to us about their experience — what they saw from the stand last season. But the plan is an opportunity to think about big-picture things and long-term things. It's important we be clear with hunters when looking for input. This is a big-picture, long-term view to determine what we need to do for deer and deer management and keeping the herd healthy.

FNS: Even before the legislative audit, DNR leaders agreed with a request from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association to manage deer with a specific harvest objective. Is it possible to do that, or will factors such as a string of severe or mild winters make that difficult?

MURKOWSKI: The DNR has committed to a statewide (yet unspecified) harvest objective. I do think it's possible to mitigate the effects of severe winters. I think that range (in statewide harvest objective) will stimulate a lot of good conversations about what that stability looks like. For instance, what's going to happen to CRP (grasslands in the Conservation Reserve Program) in the next two years? What does that mean to deer? A lot of those areas are deer wintering areas.

FNS: Several other nearby states have had problems with chronic wasting disease or other deer health issues. The DNR this fall announced more restrictive regulations about how Minnesotans who hunt out of state may bring game animals back into the state.

MURKOWSKI: Minnesota has one of the only CWD-free deer herds in the Midwest. That's something more precious than gold. I've gone around and talked to a large number of hunting and conservation organizations. One thing these groups agree on is that we're fortunate to have a healthy deer herd, and that maintaining it is critically important. It's fair to say that nationwide, there hasn't been a lot of success in stopping (CWD). I don't think that means it can't be done.

FNS: Talk about the role of wolves, especially across northern Minnesota, in deer population dynamics.

MURKOWSKI: Anytime you're worried about the impact of predation on the herd, two things are most important: One, maintaining the appropriate number of deer on the landscape, and two, good habitat. We know wolves are very territorial. They self-regulate their numbers. Think about a deer that lives in a square mile or a couple hundred acres, compared to wolves that live in an area the size of a township (36 square miles). The average pack size is larger than a township. When we zoom out and look at the big picture, we know habitat and winter severity are driving a lot of the deer-population dynamics. But if wolves are hanging out on the 40 (acres) where you're hunting, it will change the deer behavior to where it's not conducive to you seeing them out there.

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