Legislation creating and funding a statewide venison program to help feed needy residents became law last week in Minnesota. Those who reside outside the state are likely unaware of how contentious the debate over the bill became, and how it needlessly divided many hunters and hunters’ organizations.

The final bill was the result of House and Senate conference negotiations after the House version imposed a mandatory $1 surcharge on each deer license to fund the program, while the Senate version made the surcharge a voluntary choice for hunters.Deerdoe_2

In the end, for 2007, Minnesota deer hunters may choose to donate $1, $3 or $5 to fund the program, while non-resident deer hunters will be charged $5 extra.

What a concept, huh? Stick it to the non-residents. Where have I heard that before?

But the real story on the so-called compromise bill lies in the rift that was exposed between state deer hunters and the 20,000-member Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

Much to the surprise and dismay of many hunters, the MDHA vigorously opposed and lobbied against the mandatory $1 surcharge.

It’s important to note that the MDHA operates its own venison donation program. Additionally, Minnesota’s two neighboring states, Iowa and Wisconsin, conduct venison donation programs funded with mandatory $1 license surcharges.

Throughout the debate, several Minnesota outdoor columnists and editorial writers openly criticized the MDHA for its outspoken opposition to a program considered by many to be a potential public relations home run for the state’s hunters.

“The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association is fighting this plan even though it runs its own, smaller venison-donation program,” read an editorial in the Rochester Post-Bulletin. “The opposition makes no sense because, if approved, the proposal would give hunters a huge public relations boost.”

In its mandatory surcharge opposition, the MDHA argued that hunting license revenues should not be used for “social programs” and that hunters were being unfairly targeted as the sole financing source for the program.

The sponsor of the House version of the bill, avid hunter and strong proponent of the surcharge, Representative Rick Hansen, (D) South St. Paul, told me in an interview last month that he was baffled by the MDHA’s unwavering opposition to the $1 surcharge.

“Personally, I don’t understand the strong opposition (from the MDHA),“ Rep Hansen said. “I believe the rank-and-file hunter supports the ($1) surcharge,” said Hansen. “People stop me in the supermarket and tell me I’m doing the right thing.”

Any Minnesota blog readers out there? What’s your take?