By BLAKE NICHOLSON | Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Donations of venison to a program that helps feed the hungry in North Dakota have declined along with the state's deer population, but the recent addition of goose meat to the Sportsmen Against Hunger program is helping to make up the difference.

The state's top wildlife official also is pressing federal regulators to allow even more geese to be donated to the charity that raises money for the processing of donated deer and geese and coordinates the distribution of meat to about 20 North Dakota food pantries. It is administered by Community Action Partnership, a federally funded nonprofit that serves low-income families.

Severe winters in recent years have had an impact on North Dakota's deer population. The state Game and Fish Department this year made 59,500 gun hunting licenses available, the least in 30 years.

Deer donations to the Sportsmen Against Hunger program have dropped steadily from 353 in 2009 to 102 last year, according to Program Coordinator Sarah Hasbargen.

While deer have been struggling, geese in North Dakota have been thriving because there is ample water around to provide habitat, and the birds have a high survival rate. That gave officials with Community Action Partnership an idea last year.

"We wanted to explore options of ways that we could get additional protein sources into the food pantries," partnership state Executive Director Andrea Olson said. "Everything just kind of fell into place. There was a huge population of geese, and Game and Fish knew we would put it in good hands, so we just worked together."

Goose donations during the pilot program year of 2012 totaled 350. As word has spread, donations have nearly quadrupled to 1,300 this fall. Community Action Partnership is providing not only the goose meat to pantries but also recipes. That has helped patrons unfamiliar with the meat, said Linda Clark, coordinator of the Emergency Food Pantry in Fargo that serves up to 50 families daily and up to 80 a day during the holidays.

"People love meat, we never seem to have enough of it," she said. "Venison is still No. 1, and goose is still new to the area, but anything we get just goes."

Hunters can donate light geese, snow, blue and Ross's geese, throughout the fall, but they can donate Canada geese only during the limited early hunting season in late summer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates migratory waterfowl, worries that some hunters might take advantage of an expanded Canada goose donation opportunity to exceed possession limits.

Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand said state officials believe that fear is unfounded, and he is pushing federal officials to allow Canada goose donations during the regular hunting season.

"It's pretty apparent we aren't going to get it this year, but we're going to push hard to get it for next year," he said.