DULUTH, Minn.-Deer hunters and other interested folks gathered over coffee and chocolate-chip cookies in Duluth on Wednesday night, Feb. 22, to help forge a statewide deer management plan.

Thirty-four people - men, women, adults and a few kids - showed up at Lake Superior College to share their views on Minnesota's deer with a sizeable contingent of Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials.

The nearly three-hour session was the ninth of 12 being held across the state as the DNR gathers public sentiment on how whitetails should be managed statewide. Another was held Thursday night at Mountain Iron.

"This is not a hunting plan," DNR big game program leader Adam Murkowski cautioned the Duluth group.

Rather, the people who turned out that night were encouraged by Murkowski to "think big and think long-range."

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That said, most of those who came to offer their opinions were hunters who wanted to discuss deer numbers, predators, chronic wasting disease, deer and elk farms, forest management and the transparency of the DNR's deer management efforts.

The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor in May 2016 recommended the DNR come up with a deer management plan after a review of the DNR's deer management practices. The DNR agreed to come up with a plan and has appointed a 20-member Deer Plan Advisory Committee to help develop the plan. The purpose of Wednesday's meeting in Duluth was to gather information to help guide the advisory committee, which has met twice.

At no place in the two-page, seven-point outline the DNR provided for Wednesday night's meeting was the topic of deer predation mentioned. But it clearly was one of the primary concerns of those who attended the meeting.

"If you want the plan to fly, you're going to have to address the predator problem," said Duluth taxidermist and deer hunter Randy Bowe.

By predators, he meant gray wolves (now under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act), bears, coyotes and bobcats, he said.

"Wolves are a magnificent animal," said hunter John Welna of Saginaw. "But there are too darn many of them."

"It seems like every time we bring up wolves, they (DNR officials) change the subject," said Al Vorderbruggen of Lakewood Township.

Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife populations manager, assured those in attendance Wednesday evening that the agency is working with Minnesota's congressional delegation to get wolves delisted - again.

"We're not sitting by idly," Merchant said.

After Minnesota's wolf population, estimated at about 2,200 animals, was removed from federal protection in December 2011, Minnesota held wolf hunting and trapping seasons in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The season was highly controversial, and many Minnesotans opposed it. The wolf season was ended when a federal court decision put the wolf back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in December 2014.

Hunters at the Duluth meeting talked more about predators than those farther south, Murkowski said.

"They're probably a little more exposed to that than folks in, say, Rochester," Murkowski said. "They're interested in making sure the plan encompasses everything that affects deer. It's not just the wolf preying on adult deer. There's a suite of predators in the north woods. Black bears prey on fawns."

Different process

Unlike many meetings where the DNR solicits public comment on deer management, Wednesday's discussion was not the kind where one person after another went to the microphone to sound off. After opening remarks by Murkowski, those in attendance broke into small groups and discussed many aspects of deer management. After their comments were summarized, one member of each group presented its ideas in front of the entire body.

Several people in attendance found the process helpful.

"I like what we're doing here," Vorderbruggen said, "as long as they listen."

"The fact that we're having these conversations is great," said Clark Bartelt of Two Harbors, who brought his young son to the meeting.

While the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has called for the DNR to manage the deer population based on a specific harvest goal, not everyone at the meeting supported that.

"In a perfect world, we want to maintain the lowest acceptable deer herd size," said Carl Peterson of Duluth. "There's got to be another way to manage deer in Minnesota. It can't just be on the hunting harvest."

In guiding Wednesday night's meeting, DNR officials had offered several areas for potential discussion based on previous input from its staff and the public. Among those topics were deer health, deer population management, the DNR's communication with the public, hunter satisfaction, habitat and more.

Here is a collection of comments made by people during the course of Wednesday night's meeting:

• "All deer management objectives must be focused on reducing or eliminating CWD (chronic wasting disease)," said Frank Koshere of Fredenberg Township.

• "I'm a deer hunter. I want to shoot a deer every fall," Welna said. "But it's more than that. You have to have a sustainable population that isn't damaging its habitat."

• "We'd like to see more transparency in the DNR's management decisions," said Duluth's Mike Schrage.

• "I rely on deer meat to live," said Bonita Ysen of International Falls. "They (DNR officials) should do something for people who rely on deer to live."

• "There should be a youth (deer-hunting) season statewide, not just in the southeast and the northwest," Bartelt said.

Other ideas floated by those attending the meeting included a statewide ban on deer feeding, requiring double-fencing at deer and elk farms and the value of predators in taking weak or diseased deer.

Public comments on the deer plan are being accepted by the DNR on its website, mndnr.gov, through March 5.

DNR officials said they hope to have a draft of the deer management plan completed sometime this year, and the public will have another opportunity to comment on it.