Anyone interested in the local deer population had a chance to voice their opinion on Jan. 22 in Alexandria, and the conversation at these meetings can get spirited at times.

The three-hour long workshop was hosted in the auditorium of the south building at the Alexandria Community and Technical College. It’s one of two such workshops the Minnesota DNR is hosting locally to get input on how people feel about the deer herd.

The second meeting in Alexandria is set for Feb. 25 at the same location and 6-9 p.m. time frame. Anyone interested in deer is welcomed to attend the upcoming workshop, and both people with a primary focus on hunting and others who are concerned about damage being done to crops and other properties were represented in Alexandria last Wednesday.

That second workshop will focus on discussing solutions to the issues that were brought forward on Wednesday and create recommendations for the deer populations in the Central Hills Prairie block. This block includes deer permit areas 213, 214, 215, 218, 239, 240, 273, 276 and 277.

These are some of the highest-deer density areas in Minnesota. That fluctuates based on habitat, but generally speaking, a lot of these areas have everything a deer needs.

One graphic DNR big-game program leader Barbara Keller showed during an opening presentation described the Central Hills Prairie block as 41% annual row crops, 33% grassland or wetland terrains, 6% developed and 20% woody cover.

That combination of mixed habitats often leads to successful fawn production and high deer numbers. For example, the most recent pre-fawn deer population estimates for permit area 214 suggest an increasing population trend over the last six years, with an estimated 25 deer per square mile in 2014 to 34 deer per square mile in 2019. Harvest per square mile in the whole Central Hill Prairie block has trended upward in each of the last five years.

“We can support a lot of deer because habitat is so good here,” Keller said. “We’re able to support more deer than the public wants at times. It’s a balancing act.”

That was evident from the discussion in Alexandria. Here are a few of my biggest takeaways from taking part in the workshop.

Crop depredation a big issue for some

Deer numbers are out of control in some parts of the region is a message that was shared by many who came to voice their concern on this issue.

One person was there representing a neighborhood within the Alexandria city limits. He would like to see some type of hunts allowed as a way of managing numbers and was encouraged by Keller to reach out to city-council members as the best way to start the ball rolling toward any potential of getting hunting opportunities within city limits.

Archery hunts have been used in some urban areas, even around large metro areas such as Washington D.C., to try to manage deer populations.

Farmers were well represented in Alexandria, as well. Many of them are hunters too, but they were passionate about doing something to lower the deer numbers to limit their crop loss. Of the nine permit areas in the Central Hills Prairie block, four were intensive harvest in 2019 where hunters could take up to three deer.

Some at the workshop want to see regulation changes to encourage hunters to take more does in their area. The idea of an earn-a-buck situation where a hunter has to shoot an anterless deer before getting a buck tag was mentioned, along with creating buck quotas. Both these ideas were brought up multiple times as ways to address crop loss for farmers and also for getting more older-age class bucks into the population.

Those in attendance at the workshop were asked to select topics of interest as they came in by taking two dots and placing them next to the issues they are most concerned about between Chronic Wasting Disease, winter severity, crop depredation and bigger or better bucks. CWD was the biggest issue for those in attendance, but crop depredation was second on the list.

Update on CWD case in Douglas County

DNR staff members did not have much of an update on the response plan as it pertains to the wild deer herd after the first confirmed case of CWD was discovered in Douglas County on Dec. 10, 2019 on a small cervid farm.

That adult 8-year-old whitetail doe tested positive for CWD after its buck pen-mate killed it in a small, two-deer, hobbyist herd. The doe had lived on the farm for 9 months. A Board of Animal Health investigation traced the deer back to a Pine County facility that had a CWD doe also test positive for the disease. Both facilities have been depopulated.

Keller said that the DNR is cooperating with the BAH on inspections, using aerial flights to try to assess the deer densities around the farm and the risk in the wild herd, discussing a possible feeding ban, and developing surveillance plans for the area. DNR staff members at the meeting did not want to speculate on what the response plan might be until it is final.

As it pertains to the discovery of CWD in a captive cervid facility, the DNR’s CWD response plan states: “The Minnesota DNR will determine if wild cervids in the surrounding area are infected with CWD by conducting precautionary surveillance in the immediate area for a minimum of three consecutive years, which may include hunter-harvested surveillance, special hunts, landowner shooting permits, and agency-directed culling.”

More involvement wanted

The conversation at the end of the meeting turned to how the DNR could better promote public discussion like this by marketing these meetings.

To the DNR’s credit, the organization does send out well put-together press releases with information on public meetings to media outlets. Notification of the Jan. 22 public workshop in Alexandria ran in the Echo Press in print and online in early January and again online the day of the meeting. One DNR staff member said they have often struggled with getting good enough participation at meetings like this that allows for gathering solid data.

About 30 people showed up at the meeting in Alexandria, in addition to more than 10 DNR staff members who led the workshop. The DNR was in Moorhead the night before for a similar workshop where not one person from the public showed up.

The DNR is encouraging anyone with an opinion on deer population goals - how much of an increase or decrease is desired in the population for a particular permit area - to get involved.

Surveys conducted by the DNR showed that most prefer to do that through online questionnaires, and people can fill out a populations and observations questionnaire through the DNR deer population and goals website at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/deer/management/population.html.