By Shawn Perich
In a winter defined by below zero cold and frequent snows, the Minnesota DNR made the right decision to authorize $170,000 for emergency deer feeding in northern Minnesota. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association asked the agency to do so, using monies from a deer license surcharge earmarked for emergency feeding and response to outbreaks of disease. Given the source of the money and the apparent severity of the winter, it was appropriate for the organization to request the funds.
So far, the discussion among wildlife managers and hunters about whether or not to feed deer this winter has been civil. This was not the case during the difficult winters of the mid 90s, when a reluctant DNR and hunters locked horns over emergency feeding, drawing the Legislature into the dispute. Despite DNR opposition, once the politicians entered the fray, truckloads of deer food soon were rolling into the woods.
That the DNR is cooperating with the MDHA this time around doesn’t mean agency biologists have had a change of heart. Biologists still believe emergency feeding cannot reach enough deer to make a difference and, by concentrating individual deer, increases the risk of transmitting disease. Perhaps agency leaders have prudently decided to agree to deer feeding rather than endure the inevitable public and political blowback if they do not.
Parameters for where deer feeding may occur have been established by the DNR. Feeding is limited to public land within hunting permit areas where the agency believes deer numbers are below or nearly below its population goals. Interestingly, this doesn’t include the northeastern Minnesota permit areas east of U.S. Hwy 53, including the North Shore, where the state’s deepest snow is found. Whitetail abundance there is considered at or above goal, but it is also worth noting that many, if not most North Shore deer have access to backyard feeders. Also, allowing deer numbers to increase there could risk the transmission of illnesses such as parasitic brain worm to the state’s beleaguered moose herd.
The feed will be hauled into the woods by volunteers associated with various MDHA chapters. According to a story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the volunteers will use snowmobiles to haul the feed away from roads and snowmobile trails so whitetails attracted to the feeding sites won’t create a driving hazard. The MDHA hopes to begin feeding by March 1 and will continue until the snow melts, likely a period of four to six weeks.
Despite the volunteers’ best efforts, many deer in the feeding zone will never see so much as a mouthful of state-funded food. The area is simply too big to allow for feed to be distributed everywhere. At best, they may help scattered groups of deer to make it through the winter.
Or they may not. As someone who lives in an area where lots of deer feeding occurs, I’ve noticed that where the deer go, wolves follow. If the snows are not too deep (and I’d argue they are not), the deer can pound out a network of trails they can use to escape wolves. That said, I’ve also noticed that wolves hang around the vicinity of feeding sites. Hey, wolves have to eat, too.
This winter, I’ve been taking snowshoe hikes with the dog in the woods near my home. We see the tracks and trails left by a group of whitetails, no doubt being fed by some of my neighbors. The deer seem to spend most of their time beneath the shelter of balsam fir, where snow depths are considerably less than they are in open aspen woods. I’ve seen where they have been “cratering” or digging through the snow to reach ground-level edibles. Since the deer make little use of our beaten snowshoe path, I assume they are getting around just fine.
The wolves, on the other hand, frequently walk on our path with fresh tracks appearing very soon after each snowfall. Although I haven’t found a wolf kill this winter, they’ve left lots of piles of scat along our path, which the dog dutifully pees on. It’s obvious the wolves are eating well. That said, I can’t say I’ve seen any more or less deer and wolf sign this winter than I’ve seen in other years.
I’d also say recreational winter feeding along the North Shore improves deer survival, if for no other reason than the whitetails don’t need to expend a lot of energy to fill their bellies. After years of observing recreational feeding and having done it for a few winters in the past, I’m as sure as a nonscientist may be that deer feeding makes a difference at the local level. Even so, we still lose deer when the snow gets deep. Winter, more than any factor—including the predations of hunters and wolves—determines the abundance of northern deer.
But I’ve also lived in northern Minnesota long enough to know winterkill is just part of an ongoing cycle where deer abundance rises and falls. Fewer deer also means fewer wolves, because there is less prey for the predators to eat. I wouldn’t be surprised if a mange outbreak runs through the wolf population in a year or two as nature’s way of coping with scant food supplies. Then deer and wolves will begin another upward swing in the cycle.
I’ve also been around long enough to know that emergency feeding won’t make a bit of difference in hunter success next November. We entered the winter with fewer than normal fawns in the northern herd, due to deep snows last winter. We are likely to have a small fawn crop this year, too. No amount of emergency feeding will change that. Hunters have to realize we have a couple of tough hunting years ahead.
If you approach winter and whitetails rationally, it is easy to reach the conclusion emergency deer feeding doesn’t make a difference. But you have to factor in another part of the equation – people. And when you do, you may reach another conclusion. The reason people feed deer recreationally is because they enjoy seeing them. Emergency feeding taps into another aspect of human nature – our desire to help others, in this case winter-stressed deer. Even if we know rationally that emergency feeding won’t save the northern deer herd, in our hearts we feel it is the right thing to do. And for many people with a soft spot for whitetails, that’s reason enough to do it.