EAST GRAND FORKS, Minn. -- Scraping the fat and meat and other nastiness off deer hides and rubbing them down with salt might not be a job for the squeamish, but that didn't stop students from Central Middle School in East Grand Forks from diving right in to the task at hand.
About 20 sixth- through eighth-grade students from teacher Allen Edman's Outdoors Club gathered in the Pecka Trucking shop in East Grand Forks on a drizzly November evening to help prep hides for the Hides for Habitat program.
The Min-Dak Border Chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association coordinates the Hides for Habitat campaign in East Grand Forks. Proceeds help fund local habitat efforts, along with education and research projects. The hides, when tanned, are made into clothing such as gloves, coats and hats.
According to Loren Abel, East Grand Forks, president of the Min-Dak Border Chapter of the MDHA, the local Hides for Habitat effort is part of a program involving chapters across the state.
The state MDHA coordinates the program, negotiating a price and arranging for all of the hides to be collected. It's up to each of the clubs to prepare the hides and get them ready for shipment.
Since 1985, MDHA has collected more than 650,000 hides and raised nearly $3.5 million, MDHA said on its website.
Deer season in Minnesota and neighboring North Dakota was just a few days old, but Abel already had gathered a trailer-load of hides from collection boxes set up at Cabela's, Orton's on the Point and Sportsman's Taxidermy Studio in East Grand Forks.
Next, it was time to get the students organized and put them to work.
Abel tells the students not to handle the hides any more than they have to. Because of the warm fall, he says, many hunters have reported finding ticks on the deer.
Before long, two makeshift tables were set up in the shop, and all of the students fitted with rubber or latex gloves. Some of the students used knives to scrape the hides while others stacked the hides on pallets and rubbed them down with salt.
"Use your common sense, and you'll be fine," Edman told his students.
Edman said the middle school's Outdoors Club has about 75 members who get the opportunity to experience everything from archery to skiing. Edman, who's also a member of the Min-Dak MDHA chapter, said the students have been helping to prep deer hides for the past four years.
Typically, hides are prepped one night a week throughout deer season. Prep work only takes a couple of minutes if the hides are in good shape, and the students can go through a lot of hides in an hour.
"Before, there were just a few guys, and it took forever," Edman said of prepping the hides. "Now, with the army of kids, a lot of hands make the work go lighter."
Abel said the local MDHA chapter has participated in Hides for Habitat since the early 1980s. In those days, he said, the chapter was lucky if it collected 250 hides. During the peak of the deer population boom from 2003 to 2005, he said the chapter collected as many 989 hides.
Last year, he said, the chapter collected 459 hides, reflecting the lower success rate many deer hunters experienced.
Abel said the effort was running out of steam before Edman and his Outdoors Club students got involved. Wednesday night, for example, only a half-dozen chapter members were on hand, in part because many of them still were deer hunting.
"We were worn out," Abel said. "When they stepped in, that kind of revived us again."
Edman said the opportunity to recycle the hides is a good opportunity for the students, as well.
"That's what middle school is about -- exploring different interests.
"It's kind of like 'Dirty Jobs,"' he said, referring to the popular Discovery Channel show. "You wouldn't think the kids would get into it, but they do."
Emma Tollefson might have turned up her nose once or twice Wednesday night, but the seventh-grader wasn't shy about helping to salt hides with classmates Leah Pesch, Dylan Mattson and Andrew Bottomley.
"I've seen deer gutted, and it wasn't very pretty," Tollefson said. Still, she said, "it's fun" to work with the hides.
Pesch didn't mind the work, either. She doesn't hunt deer, she said, but "my dad always brings the bucks home, and I get to see them in the back of the truck."
And working with the hides?
"I like it," she said, even though some of them smelled less than appealing. "I think it's cool."
Where the money goes
This year, Abel said, MDHA awarded bids for the hides to North American Fly of Strum, Wis., and Uber Tanning Co. of Owatonna, Minn. The hides this year are worth $7.50 each, he said. The chapter raises additional money by selling the deer tails to a company in International Falls, Minn., which dyes them for the Mepps fishing tackle company, known for its bucktail lures.
According to Abel, local chapters receive 75 percent of the Hides for Habitat proceeds, and 25 percent goes to the state MDHA. Local chapters can apply for additional funds from the state MDHA pool.
Abel said there's not much deer habitat to support locally, but in the past, he said, the chapter has helped with habitat work in other parts of northwestern Minnesota, including the Roseau area, and a project near Tower-Soudan in the northeastern part of the state. Hides for Habitat proceeds also help fund trips for East Grand Forks and Sacred Heart students to attend Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and live deer presentations with whitetail expert Steve Porter of Porter's Trophy Whitetails.