ESCANABA - It was Aug. 4, 2002 and a conversation with the Field Deputy for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Jim Ekdahl. I wanted to get signed up to provide testimony to the Natural Resources Commissionat their upcoming meeting in East Tawas.
The day of the meeting, several vehicles left the area at day break, each loaded with representatives from varying conservation organizations, all traveling to offer unified support to allow the continuation of emergency supplemental feeding of whitetail deer in the Upper Peninsula.
The practice was scheduled for closure by the NRC and it was our last chance to make a difference.
There was a different panel of commissioners back then and only one from the U.P. They were pretty tightly knit, all taking the recommendations from staff biologists and veterinarians, that any type of feeding of wildlife would most likely support the spread of disease.
The meetings opened as usual, with varying committee sessions, including a dismal financial forecast presented by then Director K.L. Cool. (Not much has changed on that topic. In fact, it has gotten worse.)
When the public testimony started, each of the dozen or so conservation club representatives made a statement that, while not an exact repetition of the previous speaker, came close enough to assure the NRC we were unified in support of an emergency supplemental feeding program started in the late 1980's by UP Whitetails Association, Inc.
Back then UPW had been trapping and tagging deer, the beginning of 10 years of work to map out the actual migratory patterns of deer across the peninsula. What we had found in some reaches was cause for concern of the nutritional needs and physical condition of pocket populations of deer and the development of a program they still endorse today to sustain target herds.
Well, we didn't succeed in getting the idea passed. What we did gain is a year's reprieve from closure, giving us time to develop a more scientific plan that would satisfy the concerns of these same wildlife professionals and commissioners.
Later, the MDNR did grant feeding to continue along the Lake Superior watershed, the historical highest snowfall zone in the UP.
That fall, the same group of conservationists gathered in Crystal Falls to formulate a long-term strategy, focusing on habitat restoration so the need to feed would at some point in time be diminished.
It was also the beginning of the UP Wildlife Habitat Work Group (UP/WHWG), where biologist Bill Scullon was appointed as the Deer Range Improvement Program (DRIP) Coordinator.
Once assembled Scullon hit the ground running and mapped an inventory of winter deer yards, both active and antiquated, and then began the process of prioritizing land purchases to be held as wildlife habitat open for recreational use. To date he has succeeded in the acquisition of over 20 square miles of critical land.
After it was all said and done, Jim Ekdahl told me that the day of our first presentation in Tawas was a great awakening.
He originally thought we would end up at odds with the NRC, lose out on our plan to continue supporting stressed deer populations in winter situations, and come away beaten.
Instead, he was impressed how we came with facts, past practices, solid presentations and prepared to answer questions that would most likely be raised by the NRC. Jim also related his pride in seeing the "Yoopers" approach the issue in a positive, pragmatic manner.
Now seven years later, Jim would have been even prouder as the same pitch came back to the NRC last week in Ontonagon, only this time as one unified representation of 52 clubs, and over 30,000 individuals, all by the leadership of the UP Sportsmen's Alliance (UPSA).
The presentation wasn't far removed from that used seven years prior. It was a basic formula we learned from our MDNR mentors such as the late biologist Richard Aartila, retired deer research biologist John Ozoga, retired wildlife technicians Frank Short and Dan Delisle.
What gave the program more teeth was the requirements of what, when, where and how to perform emergency feeding of winter yarding deer and how these same conservation organizations would man and pay for the program.
It incorporated deer density dynamics to assure areas with deer populations that exceeded quotas set by area biologists would not be fed. It covers weather conditions Deer Management Unit (DMU) specific with monitoring within each area.
There are even provisions of feed sources, to assure product is suitable for the nutritional needs of deer during the winter months and that the habitat is appropriate for the shelter needs of deer.
The presentation given before the NRC was, to me, a culmination of heart and soul work. One of the finest hours I've seen by the presenting lay person in the two decades I've been involved.
Those same thoughts were shared by the NRC at the conclusion, indicating they may need to re-think their approach and consider this a viable alternative to what previously had been a short term do nothing plan, all while complimenting the presenters.
We still need to look towards the future and natural sustainability with proper winter habitat. Until then, I think we have a real opportunity to educate the public and keep at least a huntable population of deer, something many of us live for.
Well done UPSA.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.