State to begin feeding deer during harsh winter

Deer rest in a patch of woods on a January afternoon.
AP Photo/The Duluth News-Tribune, Sam Cook

For the first time in 17 years, the state of Minnesota will begin emergency feeding of deer in some parts of northern Minnesota today.

Related: Deer feeding will be allowed despite agency misgivings

Hunting groups convinced the DNR to tap a pot of money set aside for feeding in emergency situations. They say two harsh winters in a row have drawn down the deer population in some northern counties.

Now the state is buying $170,000 worth of feed and later this morning volunteers will begin bringing it to areas where deer are known to gather this time of year.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

MPR's Cathy Wurzer spoke with Mark Johnson, who's organizing the feeding effort. He is executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

CATHY WURZER: Well the snow is deep. It's been a tough winter. Deer are hungry. But if deer die of starvation, isn't that the way of the natural world?

MARK JOHNSON: It sure, it really is, you know, but in these times where we can do something, people like to get involved and like to get engaged.

WURZER: But why? In essence, you're keeping deer alive in order to hunt them. Is this an economic issue?

Johnson: No. You could take that view of it, but there's really much more. There's a biological side and a sociological side. Sociologically, people want to be involved, especially hunters. They love seeing deer, they love seeing numbers of deer on the landscape, and they do like hunting them. But people are caring animals. And we really feel like we want to help deer, especially in years like this, where it is so tough out there, and they are struggling so much.

WURZER: So in a sense, humans are being compassionate. You mentioned the biological side. What's that about?

JOHNSON: From a biological standpoint, there are arguments against feeding deer. The DNR has these objections, and it's biologically correct. They say that there's no population-wide effect if it's caused by this. And they're right, it's strictly a localized effect, it only affects the deer you get to.

They also are afraid of concentrating the deer with feeding. And thankfully, this time of year, of course this is emergency winter deer feeding. It's a little bit different in that the deer are already concentrated in their deer yards, naturally in the winter.

This actually could concentrate them more as you end up feeding on a normal area, you know, a small area. And we spread out the feed to try to reduce that interaction between the deer. But from a strictly numbers standpoint, they're closer together. And it's kind of like if, the theory is, it's kind of like if you and me are eating off the same plate and one of us has the flu, now both of us are going to end up with the flu.

But from a risk-assessment standpoint, northeast Minnesota, where this is happening, is an area where we never have had any indication of transmissible deer diseases, like the Chronic Wasting Disease, or Bovine Tuberculosis. So the risk of transferring disease is really quite small, if at all.

WURZER: Of course, folks are used to hearing that there are too many deer in some parts of the state. So, you're going to just concentrate on areas where this can help the deer population, which has been struggling?

JOHNSON: Yeah, there's several different rules that go with this feeding. And there was a protocol from DNR to set up what areas were actually eligible. There's 13 deer permit areas in the northeastern part of the state that are eligible, and they checked that eligibility by looking at the winter severity index, and they said by February 15th, the winter severity index had to be at least 100. And of course right now, in most of those areas, we're at 160s, 180s, maybe 190s, so it's really advanced quite a bit beyond that, so definitely a severe winter.

But the other criteria was that each of those areas had to below deer goal levels by DNR standards, or anticipated to be below goal levels by the end of this winter. We also are only able to do feed on public land. And then the other thing is that we can't feed in the core moose area. So basically, from Two Harbors to Ely to Canada, and over to Lake Superior, we're not feeding.

WURZER: And, you're starting the feeding effort this morning.

JOHNSON: Yes. In fact, our first distribution is going to be happening over at Esko.