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Emergency deer feeding could begin this week across Northland

(News Tribune Graphics)

Volunteers are gearing up to begin feeding deer this coming week across Northeastern Minnesota, officials with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association say.

MDHA members and more than 130 other volunteers are forging trails on snowmobiles to reach concentrations of deer in advance of deer-feeding efforts, said Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director.

The group awarded contracts to deer-feed producers late this past week and hopes to begin distributing feed by mid-week.

The organization, using information from Department of Natural Resources officials, MDHA members and other individuals, has identified about 200 areas where deer are concentrated. Those areas might hold just a few deer or as many as 100, Johnson said.

MDHA is working with a grant of $170,000 from the DNR earmarked for deer feeding, hoping to reach as many deer as possible until the snow recedes. The money comes from a 50-cent surcharge on deer licenses. The DNR manages the account but remains opposed to deer feeding. DNR wildlife officials have said they believe emergency feeding doesn't benefit deer on a population-wide basis and that it can increase the chance for spreading disease among deer.

The deer feed will be specially formulated to provide nutrients that deer need and can easily digest.

"If we get feed for 17 or 18 cents a pound, we can buy just short of a million pounds," Johnson said. "That's about 12 semi loads. If we feed 2 pounds per animal per day for six weeks, that will be just shy of 12,000 deer we can feed."

If volunteers reduce the amount to 1½ pounds per deer per day, they could reach about 16,000 deer, he said.

That's a small number compared to the number of deer on the landscape, DNR officials say.

"When you do the math, it demonstrates why we think emergency deer feeding programs are ineffective," said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager.

MDHA's Johnson concedes the emergency feeding will not reach most deer.

"The DNR says it doesn't help on a population-wide basis. This underscores that they're correct," he said. "It's strictly a localized benefit, a short-term benefit .... We're trying to keep some more does alive so they can rebound faster."

A snowmobile club near McGregor has volunteered to use its groomer to provide better snowmobile access for volunteers feeding deer, Johnson said. An MDHA member and pilot also volunteered to take Johnson up in his plane to view deer.

"I plan to take him up on that, especially after we're feeding," Johnson said. "That will give us a chance to count some deer and see how far off we are. And it will let us see where we aren't reaching deer."

Deer feeding will take place only on public land, according to DNR requirements. Deer permit areas eligible for deer feeding must be below population goals and meet minimum standards for Winter Severity Index readings. While winter has been relatively severe in many areas that are not eligible for feeding, Merchant said, those permit areas have deer populations that are at or above goals.

Two more deer permit areas recently were added to the list of areas eligible for deer feeding. They include permit area 199, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation, and permit area 176 north of Chisholm and Virginia. The Fond du Lac reservation was added this past week after band officials agreed to allow feeding.

"Our staff will be doing some of the feeding on 199, but if nontribal members also want to volunteer to help feed in 199 they are welcome to, provided their efforts are coordinated through our division," said Mike Schrage, wildlife biologist for the band.

Permit area 176 was added because its deer population is expected to be below goal by the end of winter, Merchant said.

This winter is shaping up to be severe in many areas, Merchant said, but not nearly as severe as the winter of 1996-97, when $1 million was spent for emergency deer feeding.

"There, we were still ineffective in reaching enough deer to make a significant difference," he said. "This time it's a much more modest effort, so its effect will be more modest."