I would like to applaud all those involved with the new Minnesota venison donation program. Managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA), the venison donation program’s goal is to provide a sought-after food source to those in need while encouraging hunters to harvest additional animals to help manage the deer herd. A recent DNR news release stated 78,000 pounds of venison were distributed amongst 97 food shelves throughout Minnesota from hunter donations of 1,977 deer during the 2007 Minnesota deer hunting season.
Although hunters could always donate harvested deer, the new program allows hunters to make donations without having to pay for processing. The funding for the expense of processing the harvest comes from Minnesota resident hunters who voluntarily make a donation when asked during the purchase of their deer hunting license, as well as a nonresident hunter license fee increase, and legislative appropriations. In this way, hunters are able to contribute to the program not only by donating a harvested animal, but also by monetary donations that help defray the costs of making the harvest available to the food shelves by 72 MDA certified processors throughout the state. Now, all that is required of a hunter wishing to donate a harvested animal is to use one of the MDA certified processors and that deer be free from signs of illness, field dressed with the hide intact, free of visible decomposition or contamination and properly identified with a DNR registration tag.
The new program has also benefited from the excessively high deer populations in many parts of the state. The Minnesota deer herd has grown considerably due to a series of mild winters in recent years. This has made it more difficult for the white-tail’s natural predators, like the wolf, to manage a herd that is not slowed by the usual, more considerable snow depths of a Minnesota winter. At the same time, these mild winters have decreased the intensity of the white-tail herd’s winter kill, the natural phenomenon where the herd sustains the loss of weaker individuals due to late-season births, injury, sickness, and ultimately the starvation which accompanies a typical Minnesota winter. To combat the rising white-tail population, the DNR has been redefining season zones making it possible to hunt longer with a firearm in many parts of the state. Also, the number of deer an individual hunter may harvest has been increased to five or more in the areas where the populations are overly exceeding management goals.
The hunter’s part in recent hunting seasons, and now extended to the new donation program, is to harvest extra deer in areas where deer populations are above wildlife management goals. In 2007, permit areas that allowed individual hunters to take more than one deer provided 95 percent of the donations. Nearly 70 percent of donated deer came from permit areas that allowed the harvest of five or more deer.
“Overall, I think we had a very successful first year,” said Lou Cornicelli, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources big game program coordinator. “Most of the deer donated came from areas with overly high deer population densities, and the venison from those deer was put to very good use.”
Hunters continue to be an invaluable wildlife management tool. This new program demonstrates not only the value of the hunter as a manager of a vital natural resource, but also describes how the hunting community has chosen to provide for those who would not otherwise be able to provide for themselves. Our hunting heritage runs deep in Minnesota. Now, I ask of our hunting community, can we improve upon these numbers in 2008?