By Calvin Swanson
Murphy News Service, University of Minnesota
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Minnesotans who count on food shelves this time of year have more options than the typical canned soup and boxed pasta — thanks in large part to the generosity of the state’s deer hunters.
Hunters had donated an estimated 275 deer to the state’s venison donation program through November this year. More donations are expected before the muzzleloader and archery seasons end this month. Meanwhile, other hunters who keep their deer to process the meat into steaks or sausage for their own tables are expected to donate nearly 30,000 hides to a separate “Hides for Habitat” program in 2012. That program, sponsored by the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, uses proceeds from the sales of hides to fund habitat restoration and other wildlife programs.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, coordinates the venison donation program, in which hunters donate their harvested deer to various MDA-certified meat lockers around the state. The meat lockers process the deer before donating the meat to local food shelves.
As of Nov. 30, contributing meat lockers tallied the deer count at 275, according to Nicole Neeser, who oversees the venison program for the MDA. This number is expected to rise with donations from the muzzleloader season, which ends Dec. 9, and the archery season, which ends Dec. 31.
“The food shelves really love this program,” Neeser said. “It’s a great way to help manage the deer population, and at the same time, get some protein sources to the food shelf.”
The DNR and the Department of Agriculture began in 2007 to reimburse meat lockers $70 per deer they receive from hunters. The money helps offset the cost of processing the meat before it is donated to food shelves. Some of that state money comes from donations, which hunters can give when they buy a license for an extra $1, $3 or $5, while the majority comes from fees associated with bonus deer tags, Neeser said.
The number of harvested deer donations has dropped since the reimbursements began in 2007, down from 1,996 donated deer that year to 421 in 2011. The donations plummeted in part because of a venison recall, after evidence of metal in 32 percent of samples of donated meat was found during the 2007 season, according to an MDA report. The meat was tested after reports surfaced in North Dakota about lead contamination in donated venison.
Because of the lead concerns, meat lockers were hesitant to participate after the recall, Neeser said. Donations can also fluctuate depending on the deer population.
Hunters who plan to donate must bring their deer, with its carcass still attached to the hide, to a registered meat locker and are required to sign a form ensuring the deer was properly handled. Deer that appear to be contaminated or mishandled, or that have too many bullet holes, are not accepted.
Hunters have donated more than 150,000 pounds since 2007, according to data collected by MDA. Last year, Minnesota hunters donated a total of 15,500 pounds of venison.
Hides for Habitat
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, a nonprofit organization comprised of nearly 15,000 members, has collected hides since 1985 through its “Hides for Habitat” program. MDHA Executive Director Mark Johnson estimates close to 30,000 hides will be collected this year. Last year, the association amassed more than 31,000 hides.
The hides are gathered at various sporting goods stores, gas stations and taxidermists throughout the state.
MDHA volunteers collect the hides at these locations before selling them to contracted fur buyers for $6 to $8 per hide and 25 cents a tail, according to MDHA Program Director Kim Nelson. The final price is established from a competitive bidding process with fur buyers.
Eighty-five percent of the money goes to the MDHA’s 62 chapters, who use the money for habitat programs, Johnson said. That money is redistributed among the chapters based on the number of hides each chapter sells. The other 15 percent goes to the MDHA’s state habitat committee, which is run by member volunteers, where it can be redistributed back into the chapters that apply for challenge grants for their own habitat projects.
The money raised goes towards habitat restoration, land acquisition, wildlife research and youth education, Nelson said.
Since 1985, the organization has collected more than 750,000 hides, making close to $4.25 million, Nelson said. The money used for projects often gets matched or multiplied by state, federal or nonprofit contributions. When pairing the MDHA’s $4.25 million with the other contributions, more than $12 million has gone into state projects, Nelson said.
“We try to leverage those dollars with dollars from other nonprofits, like Pheasants Forever or Ducks Unlimited,” Johnson said. “If we can, we like to leverage those again against state dollars or federal dollars. And often times you’re just multiplying those dollars through the different sources.”
Johnson estimates 42 chapters are participating in the Hides for Habitat program this year; each one operates with about four drop-off sites.
Deer hunters are urged to bring hides soon after the deer has been harvested. Hunters should bring the hide, leave the tail attached, and dispose of the head and legs before bringing it to a drop-off location.
“All of the money that’s raised in Minnesota stays in Minnesota,” Nelson said. “You’re working for your legacy: you’re leaving something behind. Typically that money is used for public land and those public lands are held for perpetuity.”
Calvin Swanson is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.