DULUTH -- With the Minnesota firearms deer season starting Saturday, Nov. 7, Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, answered some questions about the status of deer and deer hunting in the state.
Nearly 20,000 of Minnesota's estimated 450,000 deer hunters are members of MDHA, the state’s largest deer hunters group. Engwall, a former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources attorney and regional official, has headed the group since January, 2014.
Engwall lives and does his deer hunting near Dora Lake, northwest of Grand Rapids in the Chippewa National Forest.
Q: What are your expectations for the 2020 Minnesota deer season? Will hunters in the state come close to the DNR’s goal of 200,000 deer harvested?
Engwall: I'm hoping for a reasonably good season. The forecast for Saturday looks fairly warm and dry statewide, so weather shouldn't have any negative impact. I'm also hoping that we'll have more hunters in the woods and fields this year so the harvest goal of 200,000 deer could be attainable.
Q: What’s your assessment of the overall deer population in Minnesota?
Engwall: I think the overall deer population in Minnesota is fair to good. It really depends where you are. If you are in the ag/forest transition area, things are really good. If you're in the northeast, where winters have been tough, or the southwest, where there's been a loss of CRP acres, the outlook isn't quite as optimistic.
Q: What about the deer population in far northeastern Minnesota?
Engwall: The deer population in far northeastern Minnesota is definitely lower than we'd like it to be. Living in far northern Itasca County, I am experiencing what a lot of other hunters in the region are — populations that have never fully bounced back after the severe winter of 2013-14. Last year's heavy snow had a negative effect as well. We're simply not getting the fawn recruitment (reproduction) we need to grow the herd back to where we'd like it.
Q: What’s the biggest issue for the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association right now?
Engwall: The biggest issue facing MDHA (and all of the hunting organizations) is trying to continue all of our activities during a pandemic. The pandemic not only affects our ability to raise funds for our mission, but it prevented us from having our popular Forkhorn camps in 2020. For many reasons, we hope that we all can get on the other side of the pandemic very soon.
Q: Is Minnesota doing enough to combat Chronic Wasting Disease in the state?
Engwall: Minnesota's efforts to fight CWD are mixed. I believe DNR has taken an appropriately aggressive approach to fighting the disease in the wild deer herd. It's very unfortunate that the pandemic is preventing mandatory testing of harvested deer in CWD zones from going forward and we encourage hunters in those areas to submit voluntary samples. With regards to farmed deer, Minnesota is not doing a very good job. Much more needs to be done with respect to limiting movement of these animals as well as preventing escapes. The number of CWD-positive farms in Minnesota in recent years is a significant threat to our wild deer herd. The Board of Animal Health is in the process of amending the rules regulating deer farms, but it doesn't appear that they will take meaningful action to address the issues of concern. That will likely need to be done legislatively.
Q: What types of wolf management does the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association support? Is there a state wolf population goal MDH would like to see reached?
Engwall: MDHA is very pleased that the wolf has been delisted (removed from federal protections) again. By all measures, Minnesota's wolf population has significantly exceeded recovery goals for decades. DNR successfully managed three seasons of wolf hunting under the state wolf management plan before courts intervened in 2014 and we think they can do so again in 2021.
Q: As the average age of Minnesota deer hunters increases rapidly, and overall license sales declining in recent years, can anything more be done to bring more new hunters into the sport in the state?
Engwall: The downward trends in hunter participation across the country have been a concern for years. Since the pandemic started, however, there has been a fairly significant uptick in people purchasing fishing and hunting licenses. It appears that is happening with deer licenses as well. It will be critical for the outdoors community to try to retain the people who are participating for the first time or who have come back after years away. Applying the principles of the R3 program (recruit, retain and reactivate) will be important in trying to maintain this meaningful growth.
Q: Baiting continues to be a top violation season after season. Does the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association have a formal position on whether baiting should be legal or not in the state?
Engwall: MDHA has been a strong supporter of Minnesota's conservation officers and the enforcement of Minnesota's conservation laws. We do not support any liberalizing of Minnesota's baiting laws.
Q: What’s your favorite part of deer hunting in Minnesota?
Engwall: My favorite part of deer hunting is the whole tradition of deer camp. I remember begging to be able to go along when I was very young and finally went to my first camp when I was 10. To be there with my grandpa, dad, brother, uncle and cousins was a thrill. It still is a thrill even though there's some sadness mixed in as I've lost my dad, brother and uncle in the last three years.
Q: Where will you be hunting on the Nov. 7 Minnesota deer opener?
Engwall: I will be at the same deer camp in Dora Lake where I first started hunting. I liked it so much that it's now my home.