Updated: 4:55 p.m. | Posted 10:42 a.m.
An Office of the Legislative Auditor's report released Thursday called aspects of the Department of Natural Resources' deer management "commendable," but also urged the DNR to develop a statewide deer management plan.
Outspoken deer hunting groups and others critical of the DNR's management of deer lobbied state legislators to recommend the audit last year.
While largely complimentary of the department's handling of the state's deer population, the audit made five key recommendations.
Among them, the audit concluded that establishing a statewide deer management plan would communicate to the public how the DNR prioritizes deer goals relative to other species, help lay out strategies to improve deer hunting, and better define expectations.
The audit also called on the DNR to improve the statistical methods it uses to estimate the state's deer population. "DNR has missed an important data source by not collecting and utilizing age data from hunter-killed deer" and also over-relied on deer data reported by hunters, the report said.
In a response to the audit, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he agreed with the report's key recommendations, and said the department is already "developing a process to complete a comprehensive deer management plan."
Currently the DNR has plans for 128 deer permit areas across the state. Since 2012 it's been working with local advisory teams to re-establish population goals for those areas. But the state has no "overarching" deer management strategy, acknowledged DNR wildlife section chief Paul Telander.
The goal is to have a plan in place for the 2018 hunting season, Telander added.
The number of deer that hunters have killed across the state has plummeted in recent years, from an all-time high of about 290,000 deer in 2003, to around 139,000 in 2014. The harvest bumped up slightly last year to nearly 160,000.
There are around 500,000 deer hunters in Minnesota, and their frustration has grown in recent years as many have left the woods empty-handed. They've increasingly blamed the DNR for their frustrations.
DNR officials have said that decline was caused largely by several aggressive hunting years established in the early 2000s to reduce the size of the state deer herd, along with back to back severe winters in 2013 and 2014.
The agency responded by restricting permits across much of the state the last two years, resulting in what they billed as "conservative" hunting seasons, in an effort to rebuild the state's whitetail population.
Craig Engwall, Executive Director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the herd size was reduced in the early 2000s "without any real plan or description as to why that was happening, and that's caused a lot of justifiable concern."
Engwall said the auditor report findings supported the concerns of deer hunters, who want more communication and transparency from the DNR in how it establishes deer population goals. A statewide plan should help ensure that, Engwall said.
"Now we have an ability to look at going forward with a plan, and people being more included, and hopefully the DNR will be able to discuss more openly how they're making their decisions and include the public in those decisions," he said.
DNR officials say they plan to reach out to a broad diversity of groups for input on a statewide plan, including farmers and foresters who may have concerns about deer munching on crops and white pine seedlings, or insurance companies who deal with accidents involving deer.
"There's landowners, farmers, forest management interests, ecological interests, business people, automobile drivers, a whole range of different interests around deer," said the DNR's Telander. "So we'll be engaging all those interests and try
ing to come up with a reasonable number of deer in various parts of the state."
Telander said the DNR will also work to develop a statewide harvest objective for deer, something the state hasn't done before.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has pushed for a statewide deer harvest of around 220,000 animals, what it says is roughly the average deer hunter harvest in the past 20 years.
Telander said it will take a couple years to determine what that objective should be, and said it would likely be a range of numbers, not a specific harvest target.
Whatever changes the DNR makes to how it manages the state's deer population, legislative auditor Jim Nobles acknowledged the controversy over how it's handled will never go away.
"And that criticism will undoubtedly be directed at the DNR," he said. "They are the lightning rod for criticism about the management of all our natural resources."