DNR seeks changes to NE Minnesota deer hunting to aid moose

A moose calf follows its mother
The moose population in northeastern Minnesota was estimated at 8,840 in 2006. Since then, the population has declined 55 percent, according to the DNR. This photograph was taken near Grand Marais, Minn.
Pete Takash | Minnesota DNR file via AP 2014

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is proposing to shift the state's deer hunting boundaries in far northeastern Minnesota to protect moose from a deer-borne parasite that's killing them.

The parasite, brainworm, is one of the leading factors in the rapid decline of Minnesota's moose population over the past decade. It's harmless to deer but fatal to moose.

Brainworm was a factor in about 20 percent of the deaths recorded so far in the DNR's ongoing moose mortality study, which began in 2013. It's accounted for 40 percent of deaths so far in a parallel study being conducted on the Grand Portage reservation in far northeastern Minnesota.

"That's startling," said Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. "To me, if there was one thing we could manage to improve moose populations, I would start with deer," he said.

That can be a tough sell to deer hunters off and on the reservation, Moore said. "Deer hunters like to see high numbers of deer," he explained. "There's always a trade-off."

Minnesota DNR big game program leader Adam Murkowski is pitching the plan as a "win-win" that would shift deer hunting boundaries away from moose territory. It would reduce deer numbers in the heart of northeast Minnesota's moose range northwest of Two Harbors toward the Boundary Waters but would boost deer populations in areas adjacent to that moose range.

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"I think hunters should be supportive of these regulations as they will allow us to grow local deer herds in places where that will not negatively impact moose," he said.

Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Executive Director Craig Engwall called that a worthy goal but added that he wants more time to discuss the proposal. The DNR has said it will take public comment for two weeks after it posts the proposal and a survey on its website Friday.

It could go into effect as early as this fall's hunting season. Engwall, though, said it should wait until at least 2017, after the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor releases a report on the DNR's deer population management, expected in early 2016.

"This isn't a deer vs. moose issue," Enwall emphasized. "That's why this short notice on this process is problematic. It's a significant decision that's being compressed into a very short time period."

The DNR expects to release details of the plan on Friday.