In February we wrote about Minnesota’s emergency feeding plan to help the state’s northern whitetails survive harsh winter conditions. Wildlife officials began the first emergency feeding in 18 years amid both support and controversy on March 6. Now officials say this weekend likely marked the last distribution of the season. A long-range forecast predicting warmer temperatures and melting snow in the northern woods should rule out any further need for feeding.

Officials distributed about 176,000 pounds of feed on Saturday, the final allotment of more than one million pounds handed out to volunteers during the past six weeks, reports the Star Tribune. Roughly 1,000 volunteers will continue scattering feed at 1,000 sites in 13 northeast regions until they run out. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association oversaw the emergency feeding and Executive Director Mark Johnson estimated about 16,000 deer were fed as a result of the program.

The total cost is still uncertain but will likely total $200,000. A special account designated exclusively for emergency feeding has supplied funding for the project. Minnesota instated its last emergency feeding session after two consecutive severe winters in 1996 and 1997. In the aftermath of that crisis officials enacted a surcharge of 50 cents on whitetail licenses to fund future winter emergencies. Although the Department of Natural Resources initially agreed to spend $170,000 on the program, the agency recently allocated another $90,000 as winter weather persisted. Johnson predicts the MDHA will only spend $30,000 of the additional funding.

The DNR reimbursed the MDHA for purchasing and distributing all the feed this past winter. Just one more week of springlike weather will melt more snow to expose underlying grasses and forage for deer, according to Johnson.

“Volunteers say the deer they are feeding look good and have lots of energy,” Johnson told the Star Tribune. “They are in much better shape now than when we started feeding them.”

The MDHA announced the feeding program successfully accomplished its goal of helping deer through the brutal Minnesota winter. Despite its success, however, Johnson still calculated 20 percent or more of northern deer might have succumbed to winter conditions. This winter is considered the worst in the region since the mid-1990s, when an estimated 30 percent of the northern deer population perished.

Despite the MDHA’s confidence in the success of its feeding operation, some residents and hunters opposed human intervention, preferring to let nature take its course. The DNR plans to begin a conversation about the long-term future of similar emergency feeding plans before the next nasty winter rolls around.

DNR officials did not support the program, but nevertheless felt pressure to collaborate with MDHA’s efforts.

“Based on previous feeding efforts, there’s not a significant portion of the population that is reached,” Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section chief, told the newspaper. “Certainly there are benefits to individual deer on a local scale, but on a larger level, there’s not a significant impact.”

Others disagree, including Johnson, who views emergency feeding as a viable and necessary alternative. The MDHA also hopes to discuss whether deer have access to adequate winter habitat and take steps to improve it if necessary. For a weekly breakdown of this winter’s feeding program you can visit the MDHA website.