Minnesota's first emergency deer feeding program in 18 years is coming to an end as springlike temperatures finally start to reduce snowcover in the North Woods.
About 176,000 pounds of feed was distributed to volunteers Saturday, the last of more than 1 million pounds that have been dispersed since the program began March 6.
"We're thinking this will be it,'' said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), which handled the distribution. "The long-range forecast calls for warmer weather and more snow melting. Some of the remote feeding sites are inaccessible due to slush, water or just too soft snow.''
About 1,000 volunteers will continue to distribute the feed in 13 regions in the northeast until it runs out. Johnson estimated about 16,000 deer have been fed under the program.
The total cost will be about $200,000 — paid for by a Department of Natural Resources account funded with 50 cents from every deer hunting license sold. That comes out to about $12.50 per deer. The DNR originally agreed to spend $170,000 but recently OK'd the spending of another $90,000 as winter weather lingered.
But Johnson said he'll likely only spend about $30,000 additional dollars. The MDHA buys and distributes the feed and is reimbursed by the DNR. All of the feed went to deer on lands accessible by the public.
Northern deer aren't necessarily home free yet.
"In much of the area, melting has not yet exposed the underlying grasses and forbs for deer to eat,'' Johnson said. "With another week of this [warm] weather, that will change dramatically.''
Added Johnson: "Volunteers say the deer they are feeding look good and have lots of energy. They are in much better shape now than when we started feeding them.''
Those deer should be able to fend for themselves, even if more snow falls this month, he said.
Johnson said the deer feeding program was successful, thanks to the volunteers who hauled the 50-pound bags of feed into the woods.
"Our volunteers will be happy it's over,'' he said. "They have done a yeoman's job.''
But many other deer have suffered. It's uncertain how many whitetails succumbed to the brutal winter, the worst since 1995-96 — when the last emergency deer feeding occurred. That winter, an estimated 30 percent of the northern deer died. Reports of dead deer this winter have come in from around northern Minnesota.
Johnson estimated that 20 percent or more of the northern deer may have died.
The DNR's winter severity index exceeds 180 — considered severe — in nearly all of northeastern Minnesota. The WSI is calculated by accumulating one point for each day the temperature is zero or below and another point for each day with a snow depth 15 inches or more.
As of Thursday, snow depth in the Arrowhead region ranged from 15 to 36 inches.
"Cook and Tower dropped under 15 inches in the last 24 hours,'' said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager in Tower. "Fields and other open areas are beginning to open up. Deer are really moving around and find these areas very quickly.''
Meanwhile, the DNR intends to discuss the long-term future of emergency deer feeding with the MDHA, other deer hunters, the public and legislators.
"I would like to get that conversation started before next winter,'' said Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section chief.
DNR officials didn't support the emergency deer feeding. "Based on previous feeding efforts, there's not a significant portion of the population that is reached,'' Telander said. "Certainly there are benefits to individual deer on a local scale, but on a larger level, there's not a significant impact.''
Johnson still disagrees.
"Our position is, from an emergency standpoint, it's a viable alternative, and a necessary alternative,'' he said.
More important, Johnson said, is that his group wants to talk to the DNR about whether there is adequate winter habitat for deer.
"If the answer is no, then we have to make a concerted effort to improve it,'' he said.
Johnson said the state needs to do more to preserve stands of cedar, traditional deer wintering areas. "Unfortunately we have cedar being cut down on a regular basis,'' he said.