THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn.-It took some last-minute wrangling, but the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association's popular Hides for Habitat program will go on this fall as scheduled, officials say. That appeared unlikely earlier this week after a recent decision by China, which has tanned the hides in the past, to no longer allow hides to be tanned in the country.

One of MDHA's flagship programs, Hides for Habitat has collected nearly 865,000 hides and raised nearly $5.25 million for habitat projects across the state in its 32-year history, said Craig Engwall, MDHA executive director in Grand Rapids, Minn.

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Last year alone, MDHA chapters collected more than 22,000 hides, raising more than $150,000 in habitat money, he said.

"It's been such a successful program, and people love it," Engwall said. "To me, there are two things I talk about when I talk to non-deer hunters: I talk about Hides for Habitat and what a great program it is and all the voluntary donations, and then I talk about our (youth) Forkhorn Camp.

"For people who don't know what we do and aren't deer hunters, those are pretty powerful things."

How it works

As part of the Hides for Habitat Program, MDHA chapters across the state set up collection boxes where hunters can drop off deer hides that otherwise might go to waste. Chapter members then collect and salt the hides for shipment to a buyer, who in turn sells the hides to markets overseas where they're tanned and turned into products such as leather gloves.

Money raised from the program then goes toward habitat improvement projects. Leading that effort is the Thief River Falls MDHA chapter, which collects about 4,000 deer hides annually.

According to Engwall, an agreement was reached early Thursday with North American Trading, a Wisconsin company, to purchase salted hides from MDHA chapters for a straight price of $3.50 a hide. That's less than half last year's price of about $7.25 a hide, Engwall said, but it's far better than the buyer's initial offer of $3 for salted, 8-foot square hides in perfect condition and $1 a hide for everything else.

"Things aren't great in terms of prices, (but the buyer) realized and we realized that if we really lose this program, even for a year, it could affect it long-term," Engwall said. "He raised his prices to us, so we'll go forward with the program."

MDHA only got wind of the change in China's tanning laws a few weeks ago, when buyers weren't bidding on purchasing the hides for the upcoming deer season, Engwall said. That didn't leave enough time for tanneries to react and create new facilities in countries such as Vietnam or Thailand, Engwall said.

Coupled with an oversupply from last year and a 25 percent Chinese import tariff on incoming deer hides, prices of untanned hides plummeted.

"The change in regulations from China was dropped on the buyers very late, so they didn't have a chance to prepare or make alternate plans," Engwall said.

Faced with that scenario, MDHA considered putting the program on hiatus for a year until buyers found a new country to tan the hides, Engwall said. Thursday's agreement keeps the program afloat until prices improve. In addition, the buyer agreed to buy "green" hides that aren't unsalted for $2.75 each from a couple of chapters in the Twin Cities metro area that don't have an active core of members to collect and salt the hides, Engwall said.

Source of pride

Dana Klos, a Thief River Falls chapter member who serves on MDHA's state habitat board, said the price this year means there'll be no money left over for buying and distributing food plot seed next spring, but it preserves the program until markets improve.

"We won't make any money, but we saved the program so that everything is in place to continue with the higher price offered," Klos said. "We've put out $3,000 already for salt. In raw figures, unless something happens we don't know about, it should be a break-even deal this year."

With a place to work on hides and a consistent crew of 45 to 50 members, Klos says the Thief River Falls chapter can salt and prepare 1,000 hides a week.

"It's a well-oiled machine, and it's working," he said. "Some of the guys said they weren't willing to stop doing this, and they take real pride in this. They've worked real hard through the years to make sure this works."

Thursday's agreement is a "huge relief," Engwall says.

"We don't know how the final numbers will come out, but this gives a chance to at least hopefully break even so we keep this wonderful program out in front of the hunting public and the public itself," he said.