Hundreds of volunteers picked up about 50 tons of deer feed at six northern Minnesota sites last week, then hauled it into the woods, launching the state’s first emergency deer feeding program in 17 years.

“It went really well,’’ said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), which is leading the effort.

About 45 people showed up at Widdes Feed and Farm Supply in Esko, south of Duluth, on Thursday and another 40 showed up that day at the Moose Lake Co-Op in Moose Lake to pick up feed. Tons of the pelletized feed, packaged in 50-pound bags, also were distributed Friday and Saturday at Hibbing, Grand Rapids, International Falls and Cook. Distributions will occur Monday at Wright, near McGregor, and Virginia.

Concerned over one of the nastiest winters in years, the MDHA pushed for the program in hopes of helping some whitetails survive. But it is being limited to 13 deer permit areas in the north where deer populations are down and weather was severe.

The Department of Natural Resources has allocated $170,000 from its deer feeding-disease account — funded by 50 cents from each deer hunting license — to pay for about 1 million pounds of feed. The deer hunters association is charged with distributing it.

The DNR doesn’t support deer feeding because it says science shows it doesn’t have “a significant positive effect” on the overall deer population, and increases the risk of disease.

But many deer hunters are unswayed.

“It definitely will have a local effect,’’ said Johnson. He’s hoping the food reaches at least 20,000 deer. Meanwhile, scores of individuals also are feeding deer on their own, he said.

The DNR is allowing the feed to be placed only on public lands or lands open to the public. People wanting to feed deer on private land are being turned away.

“We’ve had a couple people upset, but we’re not making the rules,’’ Johnson said.

Unlike the last program in 1997, Johnson said information is being collected to assess the effectiveness.

“We’re keeping track of each site, who is feeding on each site, the dates they feed, how many pounds they use and how many deer are on the sites,’’ he said.

Turnout at the feed distribution sites has been larger than expected.

“We’ll have more than 400 volunteers out there,’’ Johnson said. Most will use snowmobiles to distribute the feed on plowed or packed trails.

The program is small compared to the one done in the winter of 1996-97, when about $1.2 million was spent. The plan is to provide feed the next six weeks, Johnson said. He plans to assess the situation and determine if his group will ask for more money from the DNR.