THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — The parking lot at Falls Radiator off U.S. Highway 59 was a hopping place Wednesday night, Dec. 4, when about 20 volunteers scraped and salted deer hides and stacked them on pallets for eventual sale to a hide buyer.

That’s the way it is every Wednesday night from the opening of the firearms deer season until mid to late December, as the Thief River Falls Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association preps deer hides as part of the organization’s Hides for Habitat program.

Often called the ultimate recycling program, Hides for Habitat uses proceeds from the sale of deer hides for food plot seed, wildlife habitat projects and youth outdoor education programs.

It’s a big job and messy work, but that doesn’t stop the members of the Thief River Falls MDHA chapter, which perennially tops the state in the number of hides it preps and sells. The chapter handles all of the MDHA’s hide collection efforts in northwest Minnesota, with drop boxes set up from Warroad, Minn., to East Grand Forks and south to Vergas, Minn.

Since its inception in 1985, the Hides for Habitat program has collected more than 900,000 deer hides statewide and raised nearly $5.5 million, said Craig Engwall, executive director of the MDHA in Grand Rapids, Minn.

“I think one year, (MDHA) had 22,000 hides statewide, and Thief River Falls had 2,500 to 3,000 of those,” Engwall said. “It just gives you an idea what a big portion of what we do as an organization they’re responsible for; it’s huge.”

Despite the hustle and bustle, Wednesday night’s turnout was light compared with some evenings, said Jerome Cota, treasurer of the Thief River Falls MDHA chapter.

“This is really a little bit of a small crew here tonight; normally it’s 25,” Cota said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Whether scraping hides, loading the hides on pallets or salting hides, everyone knows their job. The previous week, the chapter prepped nearly 1,600 hides during the evening work session; Wednesday night’s tally was about 1,100 hides.

“The guys come and go as they have time,” said Ben Meyer, president of the Thief River Falls, MDHA chapter. “A lot of the older guys come early. Those of us who work a real job get here a little later.”

Making the rounds

About 10 members make the rounds to all of the northwest Minnesota drop sites every Tuesday from the opening of deer season until the end of the muzzleloader season more than a month later, Cota said, hauling the hides back to Thief River Falls where they’re prepped and stacked on pallets for sale.

Cenex stations are popular drop site locations, Cota said.

The MDHA chapter isn’t the only collector of hides, and some sites have collection boxes set out by other groups or individuals. Hunters who want to ensure hide money goes specifically for habitat and food plot seed should look for the distinct orange boxes with the MDHA logo, chapter members say; there’s been some confusion about that.

The Thief River Falls chapter has participated in Hides for Habitat since the program started. From a lowly 33 hides that first year, the Thief River Falls chapter last year prepped and sold nearly 3,300 hides and is on track to do a similar number this year, said Al Newton, a former chapter president who remains active in the Hides for Habitat effort.

Ben Meyer, president of the Thief River Falls chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, scrapes deer hides for salting Wednesday, Dec. 4, during the chapter's weekly hide prep session for the MDHA's Hides for Habitat program. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Ben Meyer, president of the Thief River Falls chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, scrapes deer hides for salting Wednesday, Dec. 4, during the chapter's weekly hide prep session for the MDHA's Hides for Habitat program. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

“If you didn’t have volunteer help, you couldn’t pull this off,” Newton said.

Falls Radiator donates space in its parking lot for the pallets of hides and the semitrailer the chapter owns to thaw and store the hides before they’re prepped. The business also opens its shop for members to warm up and enjoy a hot meal.

In addition, Les’s Sanitation of Thief River Falls provides a large trash container for disposing of carcass pieces and undesirable hide parts, and Huber’s Outdoor Power next to the prep site provides the use of a skid-steer loader for only $200 for the entire hide-prep season, Newton said.

“No other chapter gets as many hides as as we do,” he said. “It just depends on the hunters. “We’re one of the biggest (MDHA) chapters in the state because of it.”

With about 900 members, Thief River Falls isn’t the largest chapter in the state, but it’s right near the top, the MDHA’s Engwall said. At a time when many sportsmen’s clubs, church groups and similar organizations struggle for members, the Thief River Falls MDHA chapter is thriving.

“We really take a lot of pride in that,” said Meyer, the chapter president. “These guys that have been here 20 years, they never dreamt of that when they started; they thought 200-300 was a big number.

“The original guys built this foundation that in the last few years we’ve been able to (increase) when everybody else is struggling.”

Prices sag

Hide prices, by comparison, haven’t followed the membership trend, falling from a high of $7.50 to $8 just a few years ago, to $4 to $4.50 more recently, Newton said. A Wisconsin buyer purchases the hides for export to southeast Asia, where they’re made into gloves and other products.

The chapter uses proceeds from the sale of the hides to purchase some 800 to 1,000 bags of food plot seed, which is distributed every spring to MDHA members across northern Minnesota. The chapter also sends about 15 kids to the MDHA’s Forkhorn Summer Camps, sponsors an annual Youth Outdoor Day and donates to high school trapshooting teams, firearms safety programs and other sportsmen’s clubs.

“All of this fun is what funds a lot of the little stuff that we don’t ever tout,” Meyer said.

Conditions on Wednesday night were ideal for working on the hides — not too cold and not too warm — with a temperature in the 20s and no wind. Working outdoors on cold, windy nights is uncomfortable for obvious reasons; nights that are too warm can be a little ripe for volunteers tasked with scraping and salting upwards of 1,000 hides.

“This is a perfect night,” Meyer said. “The colder it is, the less stinky it is. The windier it is, the less stinky it is. The warmer it is, the stinkier it is — but you don’t get cold.”

Food is one of the drawing cards that keeps the program rolling, Newton said, and pork chops were on the menu Wednesday night. Without getting specific, he said there might be other, shall we say, “incentives,” too.

“There’s some secrets there, but the guys have fun doing it,” Newton said. “I don’t know … they enjoy it.”