Reluctant DNR plans emergency deer feed
For the first time since 1997, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is releasing money from a special fund to feed wild deer across northeast Minnesota.
With deer under stress because of extreme cold and deep snow in the northern part of the state, DNR officials said they will release $170,000 from a fund that’s stocked with a 50-cent surcharge on all state deer hunting licenses.
The emergency feed will be distributed in areas that are below the DNR’s goal for deer population and that have a “winter severity index” — a measurement of deep snow and bitter cold nights that put deer at risk of starvation — of 100 or above.
Several areas in the Arrowhead already are above 120 on the scale, with several weeks of winter still to come.
It’s not yet clear how the money or commercial deer feed will be doled out, said Paul Telander, the DNR’s wildlife chief.
“We’re still working on the details, but we expect the lion’s share of work to be done by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association chapters,” Telander said.
It’s likely to be two to three weeks before any of the feed makes it into the woods for deer to eat, he said.
The area of concern includes much of St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Koochiching, Itasca, Aitkin and Carlton counties — roughly north and east of a line from Cloquet to Cass Lake and up to International Falls, Minn. — but not the North Shore, where deer populations are at or above the DNR’s goals.
The feeding area doesn’t include northwest Minnesota.
The issue is controversial, with DNR wildlife managers saying they still oppose the idea of feeding wild deer. Yet some of the state’s 500,000 deer hunters are pressuring the agency into using the money for the purpose it was collected. The fund currently holds about $770,000, Telander said.
“We still strongly believe that feeding deer is not necessary, that it doesn’t have a significant impact on the overall deer population and that it can have a detrimental effect due to the spread of disease,” Telander said, noting that unhealthy deer may come face to face with healthy animals at food piles.
Telander noted the DNR has spent $10 million over the past decade fighting bovine tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease in Minnesota’s wild deer herds and that deer feeding could rekindle those diseases.
Others, including those who say a high deer population hinders northern forest growth, such as white pine regeneration, insist deer numbers should be allowed to crash following natural cycles.
But Mark Johnson, executive director of the 16,000-member Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said his members have been lobbying the DNR to release the deer feeding money for the past couple of weeks. He said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwher conceded Wednesday morning.
“I don’t disagree with any of the reasons DNR doesn’t like emergency deer feeding,” he said. “But, in the same breath, that money was collected and set aside for this purpose, and a lot of my members in northern Minnesota think it’s time to use it.”
Johnson said that deer this winter are more likely to starve than die from disease, and that he’s already heard reports of deer dying, apparently due to the severe winter.
The DNR and MDHA officials will be working with the groups’ 62 chapters to recruit volunteers to distribute the feed. Johnson agreed with Telander that it may be March before a system is in place to get food into the forest.
The 50-cent license surcharge was added by state lawmakers after back-to-back severe winters in 1996 and 1997 led to a major reduction in the northern deer herd. A massive food distribution effort was attempted in 1997, with the DNR giving bags of feed to anyone who wanted to feed deer. But officials later said the feed reached very few wild deer despite a massive distribution effort. The fund was later expanded to allow money to be spent on deer health issues, such as diseases.
Telander said despite few deer reaching the food in 1997, the northern deer herd rebounded to its previous level within two years and rose to all-time record high populations within five years of the severe winters.
“Deer are extremely resilient at rebuilding their numbers, which is one reason why feeding isn’t needed,” Telander said. “But we have to act in good faith with hunters who paid into this fund. We’re going to get this done as best as we can.”
Telander and Johnson said the feeding effort will have to continue at least through March and likely into April until snow has melted and deer have access to newly sprouting greenery in the woods.