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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Investing in Bambi

Air Date: Week of

It's been a long, hard winter and nowhere more so than in the northern state of Minnesota where even deer are having a hard time finding enough food among the snow and ice. The Governor just signed off on funds for food reimbursement for citizens who help keep the stags alive until next year's hunting season. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's been a hard winter for wild animals in the northern states. In Minnesota, wildlife biologists predict that up to 40% of the white-tailed deer population will die if deep snow and bitter cold persist much longer. So, Minnesota's Governor recently signed a measure that provides emergency rations for the deer. The state's own biologists say it's a mistake, but hunters think it's a fine idea. Catherine Winter of Minnesota Public Radio explains.

WINTER: Despite a recent thaw the snow is deep in Minnesota's northern forests. Snow banks are shoulder high on the drive leading to Bittner's Resort. Perched about a big lake, Bittner's caters to tourists in summer. In winter, owner Jack Berg caters to deer. Berg stands at his living room window and looks out at 2 dozen deer. Some of them look curiously back at him.

BERG: They have very different facial expressions and coloring, too; now look at how narrow this deer's snoot is. In some of them their eyes are real far apart. It gets so you recognize a lot of them. When the TV's on there they stand and they watch TV all the time.

WINTER: Berg watches the deer eat corn and fight and play. A fawn bounds around the yard in circles. A doe reaches out a hoof and punches another in the ribs to shove it away from the food. Berg says 50 deer will come by in an evening.

BERG: In warm weather and the winters aren't severe, they don't come in like this. You know, they eat a little bit and they go out and feed on their own. But this winter they're hungry.

WINTER: The deep snow this year makes it harder for deer to forage, and the cold makes them burn more energy. Berg says he has spent more than $600 on corn already this year, far more than he usually spends. And he wants the state to reimburse him.

BERG: The deer are being saved by the people that are volunteering their own finances to get them through the winter. And the DNR has the money; it's supposed to come out of the licenses, correct? So they should have some money put away for it, and in a winter where people like myself have definitely saved a lot of deer's lives, I think it wouldn't hurt the DNR to give us a couple hundred bucks back.

WINTER: Berg is hoping he'll get some money or corn under the new Emergency Deer Feeding Act. Under the measure the state will work with volunteers to distribute food. Many of those volunteers, and many of the loudest backers of the bill, are not just sympathetic with the plight of hungry deer. They're hunters who want to make sure there's something to hunt next fall. State Representative Tony Kinkel says the measure is a good investment, because hunting is good for Minnesota's economy. Hunters spend millions of dollars on licenses every year. And Kinkel says the 450,000 hunters in Minnesota carry a lot of political clout.

KINKEL: If history is any indication, in 1988-89 when I carried the legislation for emergency deer feeding, the bill passed 130 to 1, and the 1 legislator that voted against it lost the election the next year.

WINTER: But biologists say the emergency deer feeding program 7 years ago didn't work. They say the state spent a million dollars and only reached 3% of the state's deer. Publicly funded deer feeding programs are unusual in all the northern states that mark the fringe of white tail habitat. Biologist Mark Lenarz with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says it's too hard to get food into forests where there are few roads and the snow is deep.

LENARZ: We simply cannot reach enough deer with a feeding program, and the limited money for deer management would be much better spent on habitat management, long range management for the deer population rather than a short term fix.

WINTER: Many hunters agree with the DNR that money would be better spent on other projects. But officials with the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association argue that feeding may be more successful this time around because more volunteers are available to distribute food, and more roads have been cut into the forest. State Senator Doug Johnson sponsored the Emergency Deer Feeding Bill.

JOHNSON: I think the biologists are not right on this one. I think if the DNR will cooperate with the hunters and the snowmobilers and other volunteers in the forested regions of northern Minnesota, that we can really have a lot of success on bringing more deer through this terrible winter.

WINTER: During hearings, lawmakers joked about the deer feeding bills. One suggested killing the deer now before they starve and giving the meat to poor families. Some said there were better uses for the money, but in the end lawmakers voted for emergency feeding. Biologists continue to maintain that the program won't help deer much. But even if it doesn't it's not certain large numbers of deer will die this year. If Minnesota gets a prolonged thaw, most deer will be fine. So there might be a good-sized herd for hunters this fall, anyway. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.



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