The Department of Natural Resources has a question: What do you think of Minnesota's population of cloven-hooved rats?
Ecologists have indicted the species—better known to the public as the white-tailed deer—for all manner of crimes against humanity and the natural world. (See "Bambi Must Die," 11/04/04.) The species' rap sheet includes: spreading bovine TB, plundering crops, consuming gardens, stripping new growth in forests, devouring ground-nesting birds, and spoiling the grills on 20,000 Minnesota vehicles each year.
In response, Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources has started to take the first toddling steps toward getting the state's deer population under firmer control. This has mostly involved expanding the hunt for antlerless deer—that is, reproducing does.
So why does it look like the DNR is equivocating like Elmer Fudd? In recent months, the agency has gathered teams of citizens to talk about deer numbers, and now they've launched an online survey to ask all Minnesotans how they feel about the state's number-one ungulate. Why assemble a jury of civilians when science has already judged the deer guilty—and handed down a few hundred thousand death sentences?
"Historically, and this is true nationally, deer has been a hunting commodity," explains Lou Cornicelli, big game program coordinator at the DNR. "We have 500,000 deer hunters in this state. They spend about a quarter of a billion dollars pursuing white-tailed deer. Deer hunting, it's been said, is actually more valuable than the wheat crop in this state." It's a new paradigm, then, to ask Bambi to behave for farmers, ecologists, exurban gardeners, and long-haul commuters.
While the white-tail has proved hard to wrangle, the DNR seems to be having better luck mustering a consensus out of the most ornery of upright apes. "We've gotten 600 or 700 responses this year," Cornicelli says. "We're using a social process to implement science-based population goals."