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Deer feeding stirs up debate

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Carlton County Land Commissioner Greg Bernu referred to emergency deer feeding as a dilemma between “politics and science.”

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Wally Benson, a member of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association and the Moose Lake Rod and Gun Club —but speaking as a private citizen—argued it’s a critical measure to help preserve the deer herd, which he said is one of Carlton County’s most valuable resources.

Benson addressed the Carlton County Board on Tuesday, asking commissioners to consider opening Sections 4 and 8 in Clear Creek Township to deer feeding on county-managed land, where Bernu said the planting of vulnerable white pine seedlings is scheduled to take place later this spring.

Throughout the debate that ensued, it was obvious there was no clear cut answer to which appeal should take precedence. In the end, however, the board was swayed by what Commissioner Bob Olean termed this winter’s “extreme situation” and voted in favor of the emergency feeding.

“I totally agree with where Greg is coming from,” said Olean, “but I do believe most of the deer will disburse before the planting season arrives.”

In response to the harsh winter, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced its decision recently to allow emergency deer feeding in designated areas of public land around the state where the deer herd has significantly diminished.  Benson pointed out that Carlton County’s deer population took an extreme hit last winter, particularly during April’s snowy weather when deer weren’t able to get enough food to survive.

The first load of deer feed from the DNR arrived in Carlton County last Thursday, and Benson said some 30 individuals showed up on Saturday morning at each of two designated distribution centers to pick up feed.

He said he and at least two others have been distributing the feed in Sections 4 and 8 of Clear Creek Township, in the area of a logging operation that was slated to wrap up on Tuesday. After that time, the road into that area was set to be barricaded by the county, making access impossible for deer feeding.

When Benson went to Bernu asking that the road be left open, Bernu denied permission.

Bernu explained the Forest Resource Plan put together by the county in 2004 outlined that white pine should be planted to diversify the forest, particularly in that Nemadji River Basin area. He said plans for this spring’s planting could be jeopardized by deer feeding efforts.

“Deer are the number one nemesis for us in growing a diverse forest,” said Bernu. “White-tail deer push the forest to a monoculture, where the aspen take over the birch, spruce, white pine and Norway. Deer browsing on our young conifers have become our worst problem.”

Bernu said the county is slated to plant some 100,000 tree seedlings in the Nemadji area this spring, and they need to be planted early in order to outgrow the aspen. He noted that the site preparation for the planting project has already been scheduled. He argued that if the majority of the deer herd remains at that time, they will pose a roadblock to the success of the project.

“I feel I am obligated to do all I can to help plant conifers to regenerate the forest,” said Bernu.

He said the small number of deer the effort would support would be basically negligible when considering the overall numbers, and pointed out that some 800,000 pounds of browse will be left over from the logging operation on which deer can feed.

Benson pointed out that the particular sections of the Nemadji River Basin in question currently have an estimated 200-300 deer harboring there and explained the Nemadji is arguably “the biggest deer yard in Minnesota.” He said getting feed into the area would likely be the best chance to reach the largest number of deer in one spot.  

Benson further explained there is not enough browse remaining to get the deer through the winter, particularly since March is noted for its snowstorms. He said this is the time of year when a deer’s metabolism — particularly a doe carrying a fawn — starts to pick up, requiring not only more food but better food to sustain them. He said last winter the deer mortality rate in March and April was greater than the number of deer taken during the hunting season, due primarily to extreme weather and lack of an adequate food supply.

“If you look at the deer numbers from 2005 until now,” he said, “we have about half the deer here in Carlton County than we once did. We don’t have a lot of great fishing lakes here, and we don’t have any pheasants left. Our deer hunting is the one thing that sells Carlton County’s wild lands, and their assessed value has been lowered twice in the last four years.”

Commissioners concurred that emergency deer feeding is, indeed, warranted and requested that Bernu keep the gate open to the area of the logging operation to make that possible. Other lease-holders or others seeking permission to feed deer on county land should contact Bernu at 218-384-9179.  

In other business on Tuesday, the Board decided to take no action on a resolution of support for legislation that would allow counties to decide whether to post public notices on websites instead of, or in addition to, publishing them in the newspaper.

A measure that would continue the funding of two Long Term Flood Recovery staffing positions was tabled until the next meeting in order to secure input from Lutheran Social Services on the status of that agency’s remaining involvement in the project.

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