The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced last week that it will launch controversial emergency deer feeding this winter in parts of northern Minnesota, though the agency strongly opposes feeding whitetails. But the feeding will be on a much smaller scale than the last effort, in 1996. DNR and Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA) officials answer key questions about the topic below.

Why is the DNR opposed to feeding deer?

Officials say previous major feeding efforts in 1989 and 1996 did little to help deer. The program in 1989 reached only 11 percent of the deer, and a larger effort in 1996 reached about 20 percent. The DNR also is concerned feeding can encourage the spread of disease. "The science shows it doesn't have a population level impact, and it increases the risk of disease transmission,'' said Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section chief.

So why has the DNR decided to go ahead with deer feeding?

Basically because agency officials feel they have little choice. The Legislature established a deer feeding account in 1997, diverting 50 cents from each deer hunting license. In 2003, the Legislature allowed the DNR to use those funds to combat deer diseases. "We've been hearing from deer hunters about their concerns this winter, so we feel like we need to act in good faith on purposes of the account,'' Telander said.

Do agencies elsewhere in the nation feed deer?

"I'm not aware of any other state that feeds whitetail deer,'' said Ed Boggess, DNR fish and wildlife division director.

How will this winter's feeding program compare to those in 1989 and 1996, the only other large-scale feeding efforts conducted by the DNR?

It will be minuscule. In 1989, about $750,000 was spent. In 1996, about $1.2 million was spent. The DNR is budgeting $170,000 this year. "We don't know if it's enough,'' said Mark Johnson, MDHA executive director. "We may ask for more money later if we need it.''

Why so little?

The DNR has about $770,000 in its feeding/deer disease account but wants to maintain $600,000 for disease efforts, including chronic wasting disease.

How many deer will be fed?

That's uncertain, but at 15 cents a pound, $170,000 would buy about 1.1 million pounds, or about 37,000 pounds a day for 30 days. That means about 18,500 deer could be fed 2 pounds a day for a month. "We need to find out how many deer are in our target areas,'' Johnson said.

When will the feeding start?

DNR officials aren't sure. "I don't think it will happen until about March 1,'' Johnson said. "That means some deer will die between now and then. There's a lot to do to get this ramped up.''

Who will do the deer feeding?

Volunteers, primarily from the MDHA, will haul bags of feed into the woods. Among the MDHA chapters expected to be involved are those in Carlton, Cook, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Hibbing-Chisholm, International Falls, McGregor and Silver Bay.

How many people will be involved?

"I would say hundreds,'' Johnson said. His group has been flooded with calls from people asking to help.

How long will the feeding continue?

Probably four to six weeks, depending on weather. "Hopefully it won't be longer than that,'' Johnson said. But once it starts, it must continue until snow melts because deer will be dependent on the supplement.

"We'll have to feed until you can see brown on the ground, and there's 40 to 50 inches of snow in some places,'' Johnson said. "We're supplementing their food sources and providing them a little extra energy to make those last few weeks of winter survivable.''

Where will the feeding be done?

In 11 deer permit areas, roughly within the area formed by a line from Cloquet to Cass Lake to International Falls to Ely and back to Cloquet, excluding the North Shore.

How were those areas chosen, and what about other areas that have had deep snow and cold temperatures?

The DNR says feeding will only be allowed in areas where the winter severity index (a combination of snow depth and temperature) was over 100 by Feb. 15, and with deer populations below goal or projected to be below goal this winter. Some areas in the northeast were eliminated because deer feeding isn't allowed in prime moose habitat.

How will the feed be distributed?

Using snowmobiles and ATVs. "Many of our members are members of ATV and snowmobile clubs,'' Johnson said.

Will it be placed on private and public lands?

Public lands only. And feed will not be distributed to people who already are feeding deer on their own lands. "This is not to finance people privately feeding deer already,'' Johnson said.

Where will the feed be placed?

In deer wintering yards — areas where deer are known to congregate in the winter. "We won't be able to get to all of them, but we're going to get to as many as we can,'' Johnson said.

How will the feed be distributed?

"We don't want to build feeders,'' Johnson said. "And we don't want to dump it in piles. We want to spread it out and make it as much like grazing as possible. Maybe an inch thick, maybe along a snowmobile trail or packed area, so it doesn't sink into the snow."

Will it be placed on existing snowmobile trails?

"No,'' Johnson said. "That would be dangerous to deer and snowmobilers. We want to put it back at least a mile from roads, and not draw deer out to where they will be in danger.''

What kind of feed will be used?

High-protein pellets that likely would include ground oats, corn, alfalfa, molasses, vitamins and minerals. Plain corn won't be fed because it could kill deer that aren't used to digesting it.

There's some concern that concentrating deer at feed will make them more vulnerable to wolves.

"There are a lot of wolves in the country where we will be feeding,'' Johnson said. "Hopefully, this will provide extra energy for deer to stay away from wolves, rather than providing wolf feeding stations.'' But officials acknowledge there likely are more wolves now than in 1996 when feeding last occurred. "It's possible there could be increased predation of deer in some of these areas,'' Telander said.

Will the feeding help the deer herd?

No, the DNR says. "This is not going to be effective at helping deer on any large scale, like in a permit area or region,'' Boggess said. "It may have an impact on a local level." Said Johnson: "It won't have a population impact, but we can help pockets of deer, and that will certainly help the rebound of the population.''

What happens after this season?

The DNR wants to revisit the state's deer-feeding policy and the law establishing the deer feeding account. Though reluctant to say so, officials clearly would like the law changed and deer feeding to end. Johnson said he's willing to discuss the policy. But, he said, "We think there's a place for emergency winter deer feeding.''