December 21, 2022
Deer Need a Little “Tough Love” in Winter
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recently sent out a warning to Montanan’s that it is illegal to feed deer under Montana law. Jim Knight, MSU Extension Wildlife Specialist (retired) explained a 2003 article why feeding deer is a poor practice The compete article is available at https://bit.ly/3uU6JRa.
Feeding deer hay or corn can be deadly because deer cannot always digest new feed. Deer digestion involves protozoa and bacteria that help break down food. Different micro-organisms help digest different types of vegetation. If a deer has been feeding on aspen or willows, it has built up the micro-organisms that digest only aspen or willows. If this same deer suddenly fills its stomach with corn or hay, it may not have enough of the micro-organisms to digest the new feed. A deer can starve to death with a full stomach. In addition, deer can become fixated on a food source. Deer will stay near a sure food source rather than seek more sufficient food in other areas. Once food is discovered, deer concentrate around a feeder rather than scattering through the available winter range. Often, they remain in an artificial feeding area depleting close-by forage and getting only half the food they need. The end result is starvation. Spring searches often reveal concentrations of dead deer within the immediate vicinity of feed areas.
Another problem is that deer will not share feed equally. Deer need 3.5 pounds of good browse daily. If they are not fed equally some will be undernourished. Even if you provide enough food per deer per day on average, some deer will over eat while others starve. In addition, artificial feeding makes deer abnormally competitive. In artificial feeding situations, deer often
become combative, striking one another with hooves to assure themselves a share of the food. Young deer, the ones that need the food most, are kept away by larger or stronger deer.
Artificial feeding can spread disease. When deer are abnormally close to one another, contagious diseases or parasites are more easily spread. Wildlife pathologists now suspect that artificially-fed deer in high populations may develop disorders that lead to peculiar habits, such as eating hair from themselves and other deer.
The consequences of artificial feeding mentioned are direct and easily observed. There are, however, other less obvious implications. Many deer visiting feed stations are carrying fawns. If the food being provided is not as abundant as natural browse, does and fawns may be undernourished. Artificial feeding may force deer to ignore their instincts. Deer have evolved to fear man. This has helped them survive. Artificial feeding forces them to ignore the presence of people. In some cases, this could be their downfall. Finally, artificial feeding would have to increase infinitely to feed all the offspring that would come in upcoming years.
There is a way to help, however. Create and maintain a natural habitat and combine with proper hunting. It’s the only way to minimize starvation and work for both deer health and humane treatment. If deer populations aren’t controlled by man or other predators, you will have starvation.
Montana State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Montana Counties Cooperating. MSU Extension is an equal opportunity/affirmative action provider of educational outreach.