BARNUM, Minn. — Just before dawn Tuesday, Mike Neault climbed into his pickup and headed for the Blackhoof River Wildlife Management Area in Carlton County. Neault, 59, already had a 50-pound bag of specially formulated deer feed in the pickup’s bed.
Neault, a member of the Lake Superior Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, is one of about 450 volunteers hauling feed into the woods for northeastern Minnesota’s beleaguered deer, according to MDHA. Many are MDHA members, but many are nonmembers who want to help the herd.
Neault, a former Minnesota firearms safety Instructor of the Year, can tell you why he’s doing this.
“Animal lover,” he says. “I’m a hunter, but I’m still an animal lover.”
Feeding began March 6, when the first feed shipments were dropped at some of the eight distribution points across northeast Minnesota. Feeding will continue until the snow is gone.
The program is financed with a $170,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to MDHA. The deer hunters’ group coordinates volunteers and deer-feed distribution. Money for feeding comes from a DNR fund generated by a 50-cent surcharge on hunters’ deer licenses, although DNR wildlife officials oppose the supplemental feeding of deer. They believe feeding reaches too few deer to make a population-level difference and risks nose-to-nose contact among deer that can spread disease.
The deer-feeding effort is limited to northeast Minnesota.
Neault stopped to check a site in the WMA where he had left 100 pounds of food the day before. No deer were present, but remnant piles of feed remained. Deer tracks surrounded the feed and led away on well-worn paths into the woods.
At a second site, Neault dipped a 2-pound coffee container into his bag of deer feed and began dumping the feed in small piles.
“You want to separate it so they don’t fight over it,” he said.
Clear cuts a magnet
The site was in a clear cut, and we could hear logging equipment at the edge of the 68-acre cut. Three deer appeared at another edge of the clearing, looking intently in our direction. Then, more materialized from the aspens and spruce surrounding the clearing. At least a dozen whitetails, probably spooked by our presence, began trotting along the cut’s boundary, and soon another dozen appeared, following the first group.
These deer appeared healthy, and they could move easily through the logging area where little snow remained on the ground. The deer feed on the tips of aspen that the logger, Clint Krueger of Barnum, has felled.
In all, we saw perhaps 60 deer in that clearing, but none came to the food while we were there. Neault said he has seen as many as 15 eating his deer feed on other days.
Krueger said he sees a lot of deer around the cut. It’s common for deer to frequent logging sites for the fresh browse the cutting provides.
“At our other clearing, at any given time, there’s 150 deer,” Krueger said. “We’ve found four dead in the woods. They weren’t killed by wolves. It looked like they had starved.”
Between Grand Rapids, Minn., and Bemidji, MDHA member Gregg Martinson is feeding deer at several sites, including one site where he counted 155 deer, he said.
“Sure, I like hunting them,” Martinson said. “But being a hunter, it’s my responsibility to help. People who come up here in the summer want to see northern Minnesota with deer.”
He had fed 1,250 pounds since March 8, Martinson said Monday.
“They eat about a pound and a half a day,” he said. “They chew their cud the next day and come back on the third day.”
All supplemental deer feeding in this effort must be done on public lands, according to DNR requirements. DNR deer permit areas were eligible for feeding only if they met two requirements. A permit area’s deer population must be below goal, and the permit areas must have had a Winter Severity Index reading of 100 by Feb. 15, indicating prospects for a severe winter.
Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director, has said the $170,000 will allow the group to purchase enough feed to reach 12,000 to 16,000 deer through the rest of the winter.
Johnson concedes the emergency feeding will not reach most deer. He calls the feeding effort a “localized benefit, a short-term benefit.”
Neault is concerned that with recent warm days, a crust will form atop the snow, allowing gray wolves to move across the snow while deer break through the crust.
“In my opinion, if this freezes and crusts up, it’s going to be a slaughter,” Neault said.
That might have happened regardless of a feeding program, wherever deer were yarded up. Neault knows the feeding effort isn’t a panacea.
“It would be nice to save them all, but that’s impossible,” he said, turning his truck for home. “There’s some of them there’s no hope for. They’re just going to pass away.”