Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - Early Thursday morning, outside Widdes Feed and Farm Supply in Esko, dozens of cars and trucks could be seen loading up on specially formulated bags of deer feed before scattering throughout the Northland.
"Some of them are hunters, some of them aren't hunters," said MN Deer Hunters Association Executive Director Mark Johnson. "It's... people who are interested in deer, and want to see them make it through the winter."
Johnson says more than 100 volunteers are coordinating the deer feeding efforts at Widdes alone, which is one of eight designated feed distribution sites in Northern Minnesota.
Minnesota Deer Hunter's Association member William Janke is one of those volunteers.
"I want to do my part and help out," said Janke, hooking up a snowmobile trailer to the back of his friend and fellow volunteer's truck.
Janke took part in the state's emergency deer feed in 1997. This year, he'll travel three miles into the woods by his hunting shack to spread the state–funded feed, and keep track of the herd size he's feeding with a trail camera.
"You can't feed them and then stop," said Janke, "because that does more harm than good."
"Once you start feeding, the deer are going to be dependent on this for a while," said Johnson back at Widdes. "[Volunteers] have to keep it up, and they're up for the game."
Across the state Johnson says hundreds more are undergoing the same process of plotting feed sites on a map to avoid overlapping.
When trying to reach a herd of 20,000 deer in a six week period with $170,000 in authorized revenue collected from every state deer license sold annually, Johnson says careful coordination is the only option to make it successful, especially so late in the season.
But even perfect plans can change.
"If we know that, two weeks down the road, it looks like we're feeding 30,000, I've got to go back to the [DNR] Commissioner and say, '...we're going to need more money for this,'" said Johnson, acknowledging the lengthy process it took just to set this current approved effort up with the DNR and state lawmakers.
Until then, volunteers like Janke will make the trek from Widdes to the woods a weekly ordeal.
Feeding efforts will continue until green up after the much of the snow has melted.
The $170,000 the DNR approved for feeding efforts are from a $770,000 account that also doubles as funds for disease identification and prevention among the deer herd.
DNR officials are worried that the feeding efforts may even do more harm than good. The spread of devastating diseases, like Chronic Wasting Disease, among the deer herd is easier in mass feed areas where deer congregate.