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DNR program brings in deer meat to feed hungry

By RYAN SABALOW 
The Indianapolis Star

FAIRLAND, Ind. (AP) — Too many deer; too little meat for the needy. What does Indiana do?

State wildlife officials hope expanded funding for venison-donation programs will help keep Indiana's booming whitetail deer population under control and give needy families a vital source of protein in time for winter.

It's part of a program expanded last spring, when Indiana's General Assembly passed a bill that allocated funding to the Department of Natural Resources Division of Law Enforcement's Sportsman's Benevolence Fund.

Organizations can apply to the fund for grants to pay butchers up to $75 to skin and butcher a hunter-killed deer. The venison is ground into burger, placed in two-pound packages and distributed by food banks, The Indianapolis Star reported.

Lt. Bill Browne of the DNR's law enforcement division said the hope is this deer season, hunters will bring in 3,000 deer to the more than 90 Indiana butcher shops now accepting donations.

Brent Douthit, director of operations at Gleaners Foodbank of Indiana Inc., said fresh meat can be hard to come by for food banks. Lean, healthy venison is particularly welcome.

"Having ground venison on the tables of our end clients is certainly something we're tremendously thankful for," he said. "It's hard to get good food in the hands of the needy right now."

Before the bill passed, the program was entirely reliant on donations. There was just enough funding to process a couple hundred deer each hunting season.

"Two-hundred deer," Browne said, "really wasn't helping manage the population."

State deer biologists estimate the state has up to 1 million whitetail deer, which quickly nibble everything they can reach, sometimes depleting the forage and cover needed by other wild species. Indiana's deer also are responsible for millions of dollars of damage to crops and expensive backyard landscaping. Plus, there are more than 15,000 deer-vehicle collisions in Indiana each year. In some rural counties, deer account for more than a quarter of all car wrecks.

All of this is because Indiana is a near-perfect environment for whitetail deer. While the winters are cold, Indiana doesn't have the deep snows that cover food sources and thin out deer numbers through starvation. Plus, farmers are growing more corn and soybeans, which deer love to eat. And wooded areas near many fields provide ample cover.

With few natural predators left to keep these prolific breeders in check, the DNR has turned to hunters to thin the herd. Over the past few years, the DNR has expanded the hunting seasons. Hunters also are allowed to kill multiple does.

In 2012, Hoosier deer hunters killed a record 136,248 deer. The DNR would like to see more.

There's only one problem: too few hunters.

"They fill their freezers and maybe their buddy's freezer," Browne said. "And then they're going to stop hunting."

Deb Treesh, executive director of Hoosiers Feeding the Hungry, said her program already was providing an estimated 250,000 venison meals each year. With the new funding and with hunters bringing in more deer, she hopes to provide nearly 600,000 meals this fall.

Mike Blye, a 43-year-old hunter from Fairland, counted himself lucky on the opening weekend of Indiana's firearms deer season when he killed an eight-point buck.

He says he gets plenty of venison jerky and summer sausage from his friends, so he decided to donate the carcass to Archer's Meat Processing in Greenwood.

And it's an added bonus knowing a needy family will benefit: "I'd guess I'd be lying about it if I said it didn't make me feel good doing it."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, www.indystar.com

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