Minnesota DNR aims to capture hunter sightings for science – InForum

MOORHEAD — Deer hunters often spend hours in the woods, sometimes for several days, waiting for deer.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources believes what hunters see while they wait can be valuable information to help manage the deer population.

“This allows hunters to become actively involved in deer management in Minnesota,” said Eric Michel, deer project manager for the Minnesota Farmland District.

“Using citizen science, working with our deer hunters, allows us a much greater reach than we would otherwise have. Obviously, we can’t be in the field all over the state all the time, so using this resource with our hunters allows us to get so much more data from a much wider spread across the state,” he said. “It’s something that from which we’re trying to figure out how to really take advantage of.”

The problem for the DNR is that hunters aren’t taking the bait.

Last year, only 49 hunters out of more than 400,000 who bought a hunting license voluntarily filled out surveys about sightings of animals they saw in the field.

The agency is trying to make it easier. The study began targeting only bowhunters, who tend to spend more time in the woods than those who hunt with firearms. Now any deer hunter in Minnesota can participate. And Michel said the survey is easily accessible on a smartphone.

The study required hunters to record the hours they spent in the woods and the deer they saw during that time, their gender, and whether they were adults or fawns. If enough hunters participate, the data can help the DNR confirm population trends over time.

“And will also ask you for some other observations,” said Michelle. “Information on wild turkeys, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, gray wolves, fishers, gray fox and badgers. And we’re collecting that information to help us better understand the distribution of these species in the state.”

In 2019, a total of 2,180 Minnesota hunters returned surveys. Since then, participation has plummeted to 132 in 2020 and fell below 50 last year.

Successful study in Iowa

Iowa has one of the longest-running hunter data collection projects in the country and reports consistent participation year after year.

The state selects 9,000 archery hunters each year for the survey, said Tyler Harms, Iowa Wildlife’s biometric specialist, or statistics expert.

“Of those 9,000 hunters, we typically get back between 2,000 and 2,500 surveys, which averages out to about a 25 percent response rate,” Harms said.

Responding hunters log an average of between 70,000 and 90,000 hours of observation in the forest each year. “Which is just a huge amount of data that we can use to inform population trends,” Harms said.

“If we had our staff complete this survey, we estimate it would cost about $2.5 million a year to get that much field observation time,” he said. “And right now it’s costing us about $15,000 to run the survey.”

This is the 17th year for the Iowa Hunter Survey. It was started to get more information about secretive, often invisible species like lynx and badger.

But it also provides important validation for deer populations across the state.

There’s also the occasional surprise, like when a hunter reported a mountain lion walking under his tree a few years ago.

And Harms finds that many hunters are eager to participate.

“A lot of hunters, when I talked to them about this study, their response was, ‘Well, I’m collecting this information anyway, so I might as well give it to you,'” he said.

Minnesota hopes to replicate that success by reaching more hunters through email and social media, encouraging them to become citizen scientists for a few days each year.

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