Outgoing head of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association looks to the future and challenges on the horizon

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association in Grand Rapids, Minn., since 1999, has left the job as head of the state's largest deer hunting organization to become executive director of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heri...

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association in Grand Rapids, Minn., since 1999, has left the job as head of the state’s largest deer hunting organization to become executive director of the Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.

The council makes funding recommendations to the Minnesota Legislature from the Outdoor Heritage Fund, one of four accounts created as part of the constitutional amendment Minnesota voters approved in 2008. The fund allocates about $100 million annually for conservation projects around the state.

A Fertile, Minn., native, Johnson, 55, is a graduate of Bemidji State University and the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

In an interview with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken, Johnson talked about his new position, the state of Minnesota’s deer herd and other outdoors challenges on the horizon. Here is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. What made you decide to pursue the position with the Lessard Sams council?


A. That’s a good question. Sometimes I ask myself that (laughs). You know, my career here at MDHA these last 15 years has been just nothing short of wonderful, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. So it’s not that I’m running away from one job or that there’s a reason for me to leave. Actually, there are more reasons for me to stay, but in looking at the Lessard Sams opportunity, it’s a new challenge, it’s a different scope of conservation but it still allows me to stay in conservation in Minnesota, and I think MDHA’s on a good track and they’re going to do well.

Q. What does the job involve on a day-to-day basis?

A. Day to day, the obvious part is the director works for the board or for the council and works with the council to make sure the project proposals are put together, reviewed and ranked and then appropriation recommendations are made to the Legislature to fund those projects. But the big gorilla in the corner for the staff and the executive director is there’s about $600 million worth of projects already in play out in the state. And that’s the part that is more, I think, of the day-to-day as I understand: Making sure those projects are working well, make sure that money’s being spent right, that the reports are being sent in, make sure the progress is being made that is expected. So, that’s a huge portion of the job.

Q. You started with MDHA at a time when deer numbers were low, watched them explode and then fall again. Where do you see deer numbers heading in the next 10 years?

A. In the next decade, in the short run for the next few years, I see them going up - and mostly because of the hunters calling for them to go up and DNR reviewing that. My hope is they’ll come up and they’ll stabilize. I think that’s DNR’s hope, as well, that they can figure out where that comfortable point is with hunters and with the public.

 That’s in Minnesota in general. In the metro and urban areas, I see deer populations hopefully holding the same or dropping.

Q. Was the deer herd mismanaged, as some critics claim? How would you rate what the DNR has done?

A. I think DNR has been doing a pretty good job. The problem has been that I think the communication from DNR to the public has been woefully inadequate. And unless they increase their communication to the public, they’re going to continue to have huge problems.


DNR has to add in some other variables into their management that they have not done before. And one of those is not just asking hunters for input, but listening to what they’re saying.

Q. How would you describe the state of deer hunting in Minnesota?

A. The passion is no less than it has ever been. The thing that I’m most worried about, though, is there’s not as many new people coming into the sport as we would like. I mentioned this in my interviews with Lessard Sams, that I really feel there’s a growing disconnect, you could call it a nature deficit disorder, but a growing disconnect between Minnesota residents and the need for healthy natural resources.

When people aren’t connected with nature, if they don’t go hunting and fishing and camping and things, then they aren’t actively involved with our natural resources. Then why should it really make much of a difference to them what happens to it?

My fear for hunting in the future in Minnesota - and fishing and our outdoor pursuits - is that we don’t address that nature deficit disorder enough. It’s another reason for communication and outdoor education, to get people involved.

Q. Looking back on your years with MDHA, what are you most proud of?

A. So many events and things come to mind, so rather than pick one event, just because there’s so many, is that I see the faces of volunteers and I think I’ve got to say that’s what I’m most proud of. MDHA is all based on people being involved, and without those people, nothing ever happens or nothing ever would happen.

Q. You’ve been involved with other big game issues, such as moose and elk. Two-part question: Do you see moose recovering, and is an expanded elk herd in northwest Minnesota on the horizon?


A. I see potential for both. From a moose standpoint, I think the research on moose has been wonderful and enlightening and it’s telling us that there’s not one silver bullet necessarily with regards to the moose problem, but I think it’s also showing there is a major contributor that was not documented before, and that’s wolf predation on moose.

 So now, at least, if DNR is willing to use that knowledge to manage for moose, they can make a difference on the moose population very quickly if they’re willing to utilize that knowledge and work with it, which means they’re going to have to look at predator management more intensively within moose range because bears are also having an impact on calf mortality.

Moose are extremely capable animals, but they are pretty vulnerable to wolves. And I in no way mean we need to eradicate wolves; wolves need to be on our landscape, but if we want moose also in numbers that are more than we have now, then there probably has to be a little more management of the wolf.

Q. How about elk?

A. I don’t know how much more it will expand in the northwest, and the big issue there is the agriculture. The entire community needs to come together and say, what’s our tolerance for elk up here? And I hope the communities in the northwest more and more use elk as an asset because they are a phenomenal asset to the community with regards to bringing  hunting in, bringing tourism in; they could be a much greater asset with more elk, but again, that has to be worked within the tolerance of  the community.

There are other opportunities for other parts of Minnesota moving eastward to have elk expand. I see no reason why there shouldn’t be elk expanding into the Chippewa forest and the Superior and maybe down that eastern side of Minnesota a ways. Wisconsin has done extremely well with expanding their elk herd in forest lands, and that way they don’t have nearly as much problem with agriculture. And as long as you’re managing the forest, you don’t have the problem for the elk there, either.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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