Over the past 16 years Minnesota deer hunters have contributed about $5.5 million to an account originally intended to pay for emergency deer feeding to help whitetails survive winters.

Most of that money — $4.8 million — has been spent, but none on feeding deer, until now.

This month the Department of Natural Resources has allocated $170,000 from the account — funded with 50 cents from every deer hunting license — to feed deer in 13 permit areas of northern Minnesota. The program started Thursday, and so far about 130,000 pounds of feed has been distributed, the first of up to 1 million pounds by winter’s end.

It’s the first state deer feeding program in 18 years.

So where has the rest of the deer hunters’ contribution gone? Why hasn’t the fund been used to feed deer before now? And why is so little being spent this winter to feed deer?

Several things happened since the Legislature created the deer feeding account in 1996, essentially directing the DNR to feed deer during severe winters — action the agency has opposed. For starters, a series of mild winters beginning in 1998 made deer feeding mostly a moot point. Yet money from deer licenses continued to accumulate in the fund, reaching $1.4 million in 2002.

Then chronic wasting disease (CWD) surfaced in wild deer in Wisconsin, and the DNR went to the Legislature in 2002 to change the name and purpose of the account to allow spending money on CWD surveillance, as well as deer feeding. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association approved the change but successfully fought to retain “emergency deer feeding’’ in the account name.

That fall, CWD was found in a captive deer herd in Minnesota, heightening concern that the devastating brain disease could spread to the state’s wild deer herd.

In 2003, the DNR spent $400,000 on CWD — the first time the account was tapped. Overall, the DNR has spent $2.8 million since then on CWD. The agency went back to the Legislature in 2003 to expand the use of the account on other moose, elk or deer health issues. That change came in handy when bovine tuberculosis was found in cattle and wild deer in northwestern Minnesota in 2005.

The DNR spent about $1.4 million from the account combating bovine TB from 2008-2011. It also has spent $314,000 on elk and moose health and another $87,000 on general health issues.

But since the account was created, few winters were severe enough to prompt emergency deer feeding. Until now. In 1998, the DNR and MDHA produced a report for the Legislature explaining how future emergency deer feeding programs would be handled — primarily through volunteers — and establishing feeding criteria based on the agency’s winter severity index (WSI). (That report said areas with a WSI of 100 by mid February were severe; now the DNR considers a WSI of 180 at the end of winter to be severe.)

“This winter is the first time that the criteria has been met,’’ said Ed Boggess, DNR fish and wildlife division director.

Still, the agency continues to have major reservations about feeding wild deer, underscored by a proposal in 2010 to ban recreational deer feeding, which failed at the Legislature.

“We have two main concerns,’’ Boggess said. “The potential increase in the risk of spreading disease, and that it doesn’t help deer at the population scale.’’

And if deer are fed in the wrong places, it can cause them to leave good winter cover, exposing them to elements, or entice them to cross roads, which can be hazardous to deer and motorists.

“It’s not like it doesn’t hurt anything [to feed deer],’’ Boggess said. “It may actually hurt things.’’

He added: “Deer are very well adapted to our Minnesota winters. After those back-to-back severe winters [in 1995-96 and 1996-97] we had normal deer populations within three years, and we had record populations within six years.’’

But Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director, said his group continues to support deer feeding and believes it can help some deer survive a tough winter. More than 400 volunteers are helping distribute feed this year, which he hopes will reach at least 20,000 deer — a small fraction of the estimated 1 million deer in the state. Many others are feeding deer on their own this winter, he said.

“The public is definitely in favor of it,’’ Johnson said.

There’s about $770,000 in the deer feeding-disease account now, and the DNR has allocated $170,000 for deer feeding and wants to retain $600,000 for disease issues.

Said Johnson: “That’s been a common complaint from hunters: They feel $170,000 is a pittance compared to how much money has been generated by deer licenses.’’

That 1998 report to the Legislature called for the DNR to formulate a long-term policy on deer feeding, something that hasn’t been done but needs to be, Boggess said.

“We need to have a discussion about what really makes sense in terms of feeding whitetail deer,’’ Boggess said. The agency clearly would like to discontinue deer feeding, but it would take an act by the Legislature, and Boggess said the DNR has no intention of seeking a change this session.

“We need to get through this winter and then sit down when it’s not in the heat of the moment,’’ he said.

Johnson agrees. But he said his 15,000-member group likely would fight to retain the deer feeding option.

“At this point, we’d have a dispute with them about that, knowing our members are very supportive,’’ Johnson said. “Will that change in the future? I don’t know. I don’t see the passion decreasing. We do have members who don’t agree; they think it’s a waste of time and money. But that’s by far the minority.’’

Meanwhile, Johnson has ordered another 130,000 pounds of feed, to be distributed Saturday.


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