Deer feeding in Minnesota has a long history, and during severe winters, food distribution to whitetails has been the norm, not the exception. Occasionally feeding has transpired in the farmlands. But most often it’s happened in the north, where it’s occurring this winter also, led by the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

In most of these operations, the DNR has been a reluctant participant, citing costs, manpower requirements and the difficulty of reaching significant numbers of forest deer with feed. The agency also argues that deer have evolved to survive difficult winters, and that any herd losses will be recovered.

Additionally, since the discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild Wisconsin deer, and the discovery also of CWD in captive Minnesota elk (and one wild Minnesota deer), the DNR says the risk of transmitting disease among animals by congregating them for feed is significant, and should be avoided.

True enough. But it’s also true the DNR might have avoided the current scrum over deer feeding had it followed its own recommendations after a huge 1989 statewide deer-feeding effort, and followed as well recommendations it included in a report to the Legislature in January 1998.

More on that report in a minute.

First, rewind to 1982, when the DNR, wanting to institute lottery drawings for bear-hunting and antlerless-deer permits, asked the Legislature to increase the price of resident deer and bear licenses by $1, with 50 cents of the deer license hike set aside for emergency deer feeding (as well as the feeding of “pheasants and other wild animals’’).

In winters when deer feeding wasn’t necessary (which was most winters), the money was spent for “deer management” and/or it reverted to the Game and Fish Fund, a DNR account supported by hunting, fishing, trapping and related license sales.

Then came 1989, a very severe winter, and a bill was passed early in the legislative session to allot $300,000 for deer feeding — part of what would become a $1 million effort that winter by the DNR and 8,000 volunteers to dole out about 8 million pounds of deer pellets.

A subsequent DNR study said that while the state’s farmland deer benefited, northern deer were helped minimally. As a result, then-DNR wildlife chief Tim Bremicker said the agency subsequently would develop “a state policy regarding deer-feeding operations,” adding that improving habitat with natural food supplies might be more effective than feeding.

But, to the degree a policy was established (it’s unclear whether it was), legislators overruled it in the severe winter of 1995-1996, in which $750,000 was allotted for emergency deer feeding. Legislators also established a special deer-feeding account that year, supported by 50 cents from each deer-hunting license. And they directed the DNR to develop guidelines for possible future deer-feeding operations and include them in a report to the Legislature. It’s that report, referenced above, the DNR delivered in 1998.

The deer-feeding account grew to $1.4 million before money was expended from it — and then only after the Legislature, at the DNR’s request, in 2003 amended guidelines governing its expenditures to allow for “cervidae health management” also to be paid from it. CWD by then had infected Wisconsin deer, and the Minnesota DNR wanted money for testing of wild and domestic stock here. (Later, bovine TB eradication in the northwest would also be paid from the account.)

Since about 2000, severe winters have been largely absent in Minnesota. Until now. Which is why a couple months back, the MDHA contacted the DNR, saying deer feeding likely would be necessary this winter and adding, essentially, “that money must be available for feeding because since 1996, hunters have paid between $250,000 and $300,000 in license money annually into the special deer-feeding account.”

Thus last month the DNR found itself in a bind. Not only because it had been collecting money for deer feeding, but because the agency hadn’t followed its own recommendations in the 1998 report, in which it promised to hold statewide public meetings to “review the report’s findings” and host a “broader public discussion of the DNR’s deer-management program.”

“Deer-management needs in both the forest and farmland areas that would benefit deer and reduce the need for future feeding programs,” also should be discussed and addressed, the report said.

The meetings were never held. Nor was a new deer-feeding policy developed. So when hunters wanted to feed this winter, the DNR had no choice but to fall back on policies it established in the 1998 report, namely that in winters like this one, feeding would begin in the worst-hit areas.

So, last week, feeding began in the north. But the DNR — still a reluctant feeding cooperator — has allotted only $170,000 from the $770,000 in the feeding account, saying it wanted to reserve the remainder for possible disease outbreaks and moose studies.

DNR managers also say — again — that, after this winter, they and hunters need to have a “discussion” about deer feeding and its proper role in Minnesota deer management.