Two things are certain in Minnesota during a tough winter like one the state is experiencing: Some deer are going to die. And the debate over whether to feed deer artificially, particularly in northern Minnesota, in an attempt to minimize losses to the whitetail population will surface.

Such is the case now, as some northern Minnesotans, led by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA), are asking the Department of Natural Resources to initiate a deer feeding program.

“If the DNR doesn’t allow it, I think it would be shortsighted,’’ said Mark Johnson, executive director of the MDHA, headquartered in Grand Rapids. “The public concern in northern Minnesota for our low deer numbers is already intense. No one wants to lose any more animals.’’

So far, however, the DNR is holding fast to its position that deer feeding is ineffective and potentially problematic.

“In recent years we’ve controlled bovine TB in northwest Minnesota and chronic wasting disease in the southeast, and we’ve invested more than $10 million battling those diseases,’’ said Michelle Carstensen, DNR wildlife health program supervisor.

“Feeding deer, because it concentrates animals and brings them into close contact with one another, runs the risk of causing the same problems again.’’

The decision whether to feed deer probably won’t hinge on money availability. For the past 15 years, 50 cents of every deer-hunting license has been assigned to a special deer-feeding fund — an account with a name and purpose that were amended in 2004 so its money also could be spent for CWD and TB studies and eradication.

The fund holds about $800,000.

“We wouldn’t be looking to spend all of it,’’ Johnson said. “I think if we do start a deer-feeding program, it would cost between $100,000 and $200,000.”

Beyond debate is the deadly toll that severe winters can take on deer. A study of northern Minnesota fawn mortality between 1991 and 2005 showed the rate more than doubled in a winter that was above average in severity when compared with an average winter.

Even before the current winter began, many Minnesota deer hunters worried the whitetail population was too small. Last winter was fairly tough, and some animals died. These losses, combined with DNR deer harvest goals that in recent years some hunters believe have been too high, have reduced whitetail numbers unacceptably in many areas, hunters believe.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said recently he is among hunters who haven’t seen a deer from his stand in four years.

“I also saw zero deer last fall, and I hunted a lot,’’ Johnson said. “I know other hunters who also saw no deer, or few. That’s something the DNR should think about. The multiple licenses I bought last fall cost me $112. Next hunting season I’ll spend just $30 for one license. Multiply the difference between $112 and $30 by hundreds of thousands of deer hunters, and that’s a lot of money.’’

Minnesota’s most recent deer-killing winters occurred back-to-back, in 1995-1996, followed by 1996-1997.

The DNR estimates about 30 percent of the state’s whitetail herd was lost the first winter, followed by about 8 percent the second.

“This winter also has the makings of a severe winter,’’ DNR wildlife section chief Paul Telander said. “But so far it’s not as bad as those two.’’

During those successive bad winters a debate also ensued about deer feeding. The Legislature became involved — not unexpectedly — and ultimately mandated that feeding begin, despite the DNR’s objections.

“Deer have evolved to survive our winters,’’ Telander said. “As a population, they don’t need to be fed.’’

Still, following the tough 1990s-era winters, the Legislature added the 50-cent surcharge to hunters’ licenses to pay for future deer feeding programs, if necessary.

“Even in the last 10 years, after the fund was broadened, the DNR hasn’t attempted to change the name of the account to eliminate ‘deer feeding,’ ’’ Johnson said. “And they’ve never said they wouldn’t feed deer if the situation arose. So we assume that’s what the account is for.’’

In establishing the account, the Legislature also directed the DNR and MDHA leaders to develop deer-feeding guidelines.

The resulting plan calls for the DNR’s Winter Severity Index (WSI) to trigger feeding initiatives. The index, which measures cold temperatures and snow depth to gauge a winter’s severity, must hit 100 points by mid-February for feeding to begin.

So far this winter, the WSI hasn’t reached 100 anywhere in Minnesota, Telander said.

“In northwest Minnesota, it’s in the low 50s,’’ he said. “In Roseau it’s in the mid-70s. It’s highest near International Falls, because of the deep snow they have. It’s probably in the 80-90 range there.’’

The state’s deer-feeding plan also directs the DNR to provide technical assistance, and to order and distribute feed to nonprofit sportsmen’s organizations such as MDHA chapters.

The chapters in turn would distribute the feed.

Johnson questions the accuracy of the DNR’s winter severity readings and says that in any event, deer are hurting.

“Look,’’ he said. “The possibility of disease transfer is the DNR’s best argument against deer feeding. But if they’re confident their negative testing for TB and CWD is accurate, that shouldn’t be an issue.

“Most deer up north don’t get old enough to get sick, anyway. Wolves kill them first.’’

Friday afternoon, Telander, DNR fish and wildlife division director Ed Boggess and Johnson held a conference call, after which the DNR officials said they would take the MDHA’s concerns to Landwehr and have a DNR determination on deer feeding by midweek.

Meanwhile, the wild card in the controversy has been played.

Northern Minnesota legislators, including powerful committee chairs and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, are aware of the fray, Johnson said, and likely will support deer feeding.


Dennis Anderson