Wayne Bobendrier encounters plenty of deer while grooming 160 miles of snowmobile trails in north-central Minnesota, and says the brutal winter has taken its toll.
“You can tell the deer are in rough shape — they are thinner and have less energy,’’ he said Monday from the heated cab of his orange tracked trail-grooming machine as he plowed through woods blanketed with more than 3 feet of snow.
Bobendrier wasn’t grooming a snowmobile trail. He was plowing a path for an emergency deer feeding operation set to begin this week — the first state-financed feeding program in 17 years. Beginning Thursday, 88 tons of deer feed — the first of about a million pounds — will be distributed to eight drop-off sites: Esko and Moose Lake on Thursday, Hibbing and Grand Rapids on Friday, and International Falls and Cook on Saturday. Feed will be delivered Monday to the McGregor-Wright and Virginia areas.
More than 200 volunteers with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) will distribute the feed pellets over the next six weeks.
“If we feed about one pound of food per deer per week, we’re hoping to take care of about 20,000 deer for six weeks,’’ said Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director.
The Department of Natural Resources has allocated $170,000 from its deer feeding and disease account to pay for the feeding, though DNR officials won’t be involved and don’t believe it will have a broad impact for deer.
Dan Guida, Ron Clasen and Bob Dreger, all members of the McGregor chapter of the MDHA, disagree. They joined Bobendrier in the woods Monday.
“The older and weaker deer are going to die, but this will definitely help,’’ said Clasen, 76, chapter president.
“We’ve found a fair number of dead deer in the woods already,’’ said Guida, 42. “If you can have a population impact, even in a small area, why wouldn’t you do it? Every bit of food on the ground will help them. If it wouldn’t help, we wouldn’t be doing it.’’
Additionally, feeding pregnant does now might help fawn survival this spring, he said.
The deer population in their area is down, the men said, and bucks started shedding their antlers in December, a month earlier than normal — a sign of stress.
“They’re hurting,’’ Dreger said. Wolves, too, are having an impact, they said.
All three men are feeding deer on their own this winter, and will be heavily involved in the state-funded feeding program, which will be limited to lands with public access. They braved 20-below-zero temperatures Monday morning to trek into one of about 15 feeding sites Guida has located — one trampled with deer tracks — and put out 100 pounds of food they purchased as a prelude to the state program.
“This is a natural wintering area, with cedar and balsams,’’ Guida said. “It was logged, and the deer are in here eating the tops. There’s still a significant amount of deer here, as you can see by all the tracks.’’ The food was gone when Guida checked Tuesday.
Guida said if his group feeds at 15 sites, they would need about $7,000 to $10,000 worth of feed.
The feeding will occur in 13 deer permit areas, roughly within the area formed by a line from Cloquet to Cass Lake to International Falls to Lake Vermilion and back to Cloquet, excluding the North Shore. It likely will be a community effort in many areas, including McGregor.
“The interest has been overwhelming,’’ Johnson said. “We’ll have over 200 volunteers, and the phone keeps ringing.’’
Bobendrier is a member of the Tamarack Sno-Flyers snowmobile club, which is allowing him to use the club’s trail-grooming machine to clear deer feeding areas. The idea is to put the feed on cleared ground or packed trails, so it doesn’t sink into snow.
Clasen’s MDHA chapter will pay for the fuel, and Bobendrier is happy to help. “I’m a big deer hunter,’’ he said. “Any time I can donate my time, I do it.’’
Johnson said the feed approved by the DNR includes corn, oats, soybean, wheat and molasses and contains about 14 percent protein. He expects demand will exceed supply, and said his group might ask the DNR for more funding. Fifty cents from each deer license is funneled into the account, which until now has been used to fight chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis in wild deer. The DNR wants to retain about $600,000 in the account for those purposes.
“We want to be conservative, so we’re starting with one pound per animal per day,’’ Johnson said. “This is supplemental feeding; we still want them to eat browse.’’
Additional snowfall could be problematic, because it could bury feed that has been placed in the woods, Johnson said.
People are enthusiastic about feeding deer, Johnson said. “The amount of recreational feeding is unbelievable,’’ he said.
“I always knew a lot of people fed, but not to this extent.’’