Last summer Gary Drotts, DNR area wildlife manager in Brainerd, was invited by the Big Whitefish Narrows Association to examine the 85 acres on the point dividing Upper Whitefish Lake from Lower Whitefish Lake.
Drotts found a landscape denuded of shrubbery.
"All the underbrush from the ground to about four feet up had been devastated," Drotts said.
The culprit? Whitetail deer, drawn to the plants around cabins and houses like bears to honey. The DNR issued 20 special deer tags to the association, but only eight were filled.
Removing eight deer from the herd on the north side of the Whitefish lakes won't cure the problem, and the problem isn't limited to that location. Deer are multiplying throughout the Brainerd lakes area. With a bumper fawn crop expected this spring the herd will grow even larger.
For that reason Drotts has proposed dividing in half DNR permit area 247 and creating a new permit area 242. The number of antlerless permits in area 242 won't be determined until May, but Drotts expects it to be from 2,000 to 3,000.
Presently, area 247 extends from Brainerd east to the junction of highways 18 and 6, north to Emily, west to Pine River and south to Pillager. Under Drotts' proposal that area would be divided in half, allowing for a separate allotment of antlerless permits to be issued in the new area in hopes of reducing the burgeoning deer herd.
"This might be pre-emptive," Drotts said. "Some people will ask if we really need this right now. But the problem will only get worse and we need to figure out ways to address it."
Drotts said issuing more antlerless permits in existing permit area 247 would not solve the problem.
"If we increase permits across the entire area hunters will go where they have easy access," he explained. "In 247 that's in the east, where there's a lot of state and county land. But that isn't where the problem is. We need to take more deer from the Brainerd area."
Recently a similar problem occurred in permit area 246, which at that time extended from Pillager west to Wadena, north to Park Rapids, east to Backus and south to Pillager. The eastern half of that area is mostly forested while the western half has more farms. Farmers complained that deer were over-grazing their crops and asked the DNR for a solution. So permit area 246 was divided in half and new permit area 243, with a separate allotment of antlerless permits, was created.
The DNR tried to increase the deer kill in area 247 by issuing more antlerless permits, but it didn't work. Last year 3,500 were available and nearly every hunter who applied for a permit got one, Drotts said. Archery hunters also could buy management tags that allowed them to take an additional antlerless deer. The area's overall harvest increased, but not enough deer were taken from the Brainerd area, Drotts said.
The new area will be managed as an "intensive harvest area," where hunters can take at least two deer annually. In coming years that number could go higher.
"Everyone who applies for an antlerless permit will get one," Drotts said, "and they'll also have the option to buy more management tags. We'll error on the side of handing out too many permits. Even if we increase the harvest it will be hard to keep the deer population at a level that's suitable for an urban environment."
Urban environment. Just a few years ago that term would have been an unsuitable description of the Brainerd area. Not any more, and that's part of the deer overpopulation problem.
New permit area 242 would have nine municipalities, including Baxter, East Gull Lake, Nisswa, Lake Shore, Pequot Lakes, Jenkins, Breezy Point, Crosslake, Manhattan Beach and Fifty Lakes. Will the existing firearms ordinances in those towns allow for deer to be shot within their borders? That's an issue the DNR will investigate at an upcoming series of public meetings.
"It's up to them what they want to do," Drotts said.
New homes are being built throughout the area. Deer and other game animals cannot be taken with a firearm within 500 feet of a house without written permission from the owner. That law removes a lot of land from hunter access.
"It's tough to reduce the deer herd in residential areas," Drotts said.
Drotts will forward his proposal to Dave Schad, regional wildlife supervisor, who will present it to wildlife managers in St. Paul for approval. The new area is hoped to be established by the fall hunting season.
More information will be available at a meeting of the Brainerd chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, scheduled for 7 p.m. on Feb. 28 at the American Legion. The proposal also will be presented at MDHA meetings in Pequot Lakes and Crosby. Questions can be directed to the DNR at (218) 828-2314.
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