Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Brothers carry on winter whitetail feeding tradition

Field Editor

Isabella, Minn. For Joe and Tom Foster, every winter morning
starts with a good breakfast. At daybreak, they put out feed for
the dozens of white-tailed deer that spend the snowy months in the
coniferous forests surrounding the small, northeastern Minnesota
community of Isabella.

“The DNR calls this recreational deer feeding,” says Tom as he
pours a bucket of whole corn into one of nearly a dozen deer
feeders in his backyard. “But actually it’s a lot of work.”

The Foster brothers are continuing a more than 30-year-old
tradition of feeding deer in a winter yarding area that attracts
deer from 10 to 20 miles away. Joe says the feeding began in 1972,
when staff at the former Isabella Environmental Learning Center
(now Wolf Ridge ELC), started feeding deer for educational
purposes. Some financial support for that program came from the DNR
and the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

The Fosters started feeding deer during the snowy winter of
1988, when severe weather put whitetail survival at risk. Over the
next few years, feeding grew into a community activity, complete
with a local club and fundraisers.

“You start a little and it grows,” Joe says of deer feeding.

Several years ago, the brothers assumed the financial burden and
tasks of daily feeding at three locations: their neighboring
backyards, a shop site where they yard wood and store logging
equipment, and at a lake place fondly known as the Grouse

They generally begin feeding the first of December, after
hunting seasons close, and keep it up until the snow melts in late

They’ve been buying deer food from Dan’s Feed Bin in Superior,
Wis., since 1990. They get deliveries at 12 tons per load and
generally use 20 to 30 tons per winter. The feed is a mixture of
corn, oats, barley, molasses, and other ingredients. They also put
out about 250 bales of third crop alfalfa. Total cost for winter
feeding is about $4,000 per year.

Why do they do it?

“Personal gratification, I guess,” Tom says. “If you didn’t
enjoy doing it, you wouldn’t do it.”

Joe remembers the grim years of the late 1960s, when severe
winters caused the northeastern Minnesota deer population to crash.
Isabella has some of Minnesota’s longest and snowiest winters. Even
in this drought-stricken winter there is more than a foot of snow
on the ground. He wants to help the deer survive the harsh

“I remember when there were no deer in this country,” Joe says.
“I don’t want my kids to go through that.”

The Foster brothers are deer hunters. Both have collections of
shed deer antlers they’ve collected in the area. They enjoy seeing
individual bucks they recognize return each year. They also keep
track of the success of area deer hunters. But it is an
appreciation of deer, rather than hunting, motivates them.

“I enjoy hunting,” says Tom. “But I don’t enjoy killing. As you
get older, you feel less need to prove yourself by shooting a

Just down the road from the Grouse House, Joe points to a place
where federal wildlife biologists trap deer to outfit with radio
collars. The deer in Isabella, as well as the wolves that eat them,
have been subjects of decades of research. The Fosters see wolves
around Isabella and know they prey on the deer in the yards.

“I put it this way,” Joe says. “Everybody goes to the grocery
store. We expect the wolves are going to get some of the deer.”

While the deer that visit Isabella feeding stations have
contributed to researcher’s knowledge of wolves and whitetails, and
to the ecological education of school children, winter feeding has
come under fire from wildlife managers as a possible vector for
spreading chronic wasting disease. The Fosters believe CWD risks in
the north country are minimal, because there is a lack of deer and
elk farming and because the harsh environment removes weakened
animals from the herd.

In the northwoods, says Joe, the proven threat to whitetails is
Old Man Winter. Recent mild winters may have allowed northern deer
numbers to increase and reduced the need for deer feeding, but he
hopes any new deer feeding regulations intended to address CWD
concerns take the realities of northern Minnesota’s climate into

Asks Joe, “If deer feeding was eliminated, how would you help
these animals in a bad winter?”

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