In the thick of Minnesota's deer hunting season, and with Wisconsin's firearm season around the corner, an autumn tradition continues.
"In the last 16 years, we've had over 90,000 deer donated statewide, totaling about 3.6 million pounds donated to the food pantry," said Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist Greg Kessler.
That's the result of a Wisconsin state-funded program that allows hunters to donate their deer to those in need. The program allows hunters to drop off their kill at a certified processor, who take care of the rest.
"They take care of all the processing, and they make the connection with the food pantry programs, and the food pantries disseminate to needy families," said Kessler.
Hunters must donate their entire deer. The processor will butcher the animal, process it into ground venison, and distribute it to local donation partners.
Rob Hursh, owner of Hursh meet processing in Poplar Wisconsin, participates in the program. He says in their peak year, they donated 3,000 pounds of ground venison. But more recently, the program has been struggling.
"It would be nice to see 90 deer donated again, like back in 2005. But last year, I think it was one, if I remember right," said Hursh.
The DNR says that's because the deer population is down.
"We've had relatively low deer numbers, and hunters are less willing to give up deer when they are struggling to get venison for their own freezers. At our peak in the 2000's we had pretty good participation up here, and as herds increase, and deer become more available, I think we'll see increased donations," said Kessler.
Hursh says he hopes the program can return to what it was, and they can continue to donate to those in need.
"When people come in, a lot of them are pretty pumped up, because some people don't eat venison, but they like to hunt, and they know somebody else could use it, and it works out, it works out for everybody. I think everybody feels good," said Hursh.
It's free for a person to donate their deer. The processor will process it, free of charge. They are later reimbursed with state dollars, with the exception of between $10 and $20 depending on where the deer comes from.
The processed meat is donated to a wide variety of places, and requires many different partnerships, including, but not limited to the list below:
The program is funded through a specific designation and surcharge on deer hunting licenses.
Not all deer processors participate in this program, but there are several that do, in addition to Hursh Meat Processing. For more information on the program, and what other businesses participate in it, follow this link.