Why we don't feed the deer


January 25, 2023

When I had energy and more time I loved to plant flowers and vegetable. Only to be frustrated to wake up in the morning and have them eaten to the ground. Deer loved my flowers. They would come and much off the bloom! For the longest time I had a love/hate relationship with the deer of our farm. Then one night I woke up to see the deer eating the weeds outside my window. She couldn't see me but I was inches away from her. The moonlight on her nose and eyes was incredible. So the hate just flew away. Ever sense then I have enjoyed deer in my yard!

We have had a number of deer in the town of Big Sandy. Not enough to have open hunting season in town like Fort Benton and Havre. I enjoy them, but as I know others do too. In fact a number of times I was told about them and wear I could find them to take a picture of them.

I have also heard that some in town are feeding the deer. I know you aren't supposed to feed the animals, but decided to ask the Fish Wildlife and Parks people. I was sent to an expert in Glasgow, who told me about an article on the subject which would tell me everything I needed to know about why we can't feed the deer. Julie Lue wrote the article I am quoting her. She wrote it for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The wrong food, at the wrong time of year, can prove deadly for big game. Here in Montana it's illegal to intentionally feed big game. But according to officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, wildlife are still fed-usually by well-meaning people who don't realize they could be responsible for animals suffering and even dying, or that they might be putting entire populations at risk. "People think they are helping wildlife," says FWP veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Ramsey, who heads the department's Wildlife Health Program in Bozeman. "But actually they can cause enormous harm."

"All members of the deer family, called cervids, change diets with the seasons. In summer, the animals eat mostly high-carbohydrate leaves and forbs (flowering plants) to build and store fat for winter. As the days shorten and green foods become scarce, they eat less overall and transition to low-carb "browse"-shrubs, twigs, and tree bark. They also start burning more body fat for energy.

'Ultimately, this is what they're adapted for," says Rebecca Mowry, an FWP wildlife biologist in Hamilton. 'It's natural for them to lose weight in winter. It's also natural for some of the weaker animals to die, especially calves and fawns entering winter in poor body condition.

This may ultimately strengthen the population while helping vegetation recover from over- browsing. But that's the cold, scientific perspective. Most people not trained in wildlife biology find it hard to watch animals struggle through the lean months of winter. It seems to make sense that providing food for a hungry deer, elk, or moose will ease its suffering, or even save its life. But the opposite can be true, says Ramsey. 'Feeding can actually decrease an animal's chance of survival.' "

"Strangely enough, some of the most devastating effects are due to the animals' gut microbes. Like cows, sheep, and goats, cervids are ruminants. A cervid's digestive system allows it to extract enough nutrients from plants to sustain a 1,000-pound moose or a 200-pound mule deer. But the success of this process relies on a finely tuned mix of bacteria, protozoa, and fungi in the largest stomach chamber, the rumen, where partially chewed food is fermented before being regurgitated as "cud" and chewed again.

A cervid's gut microbes gradually adapt to different food sources over the seasons. In late fall they begin to accommodate the animal's increasingly sparse winter diet of low- carbohydrate, high-fiber browse. Then in early spring, the balance of microbes slowly changes again as other natural foods become available. But sudden changes spell trouble.

A mismatch of meals to microbes can lead to digestive diseases, including rumen acidosis (known as "grain overload" in cattle).

Ramsey says that acidosis is something she considers "when we have a really rapid death," particularly in big game animals in otherwise decent condition with access to un- natural food sources. She explains that a high- carb meal of corn or other grain, birdseed, apples, or rich hay can set in motion a dangerous cycle-especially if the animal is not accustomed to that diet. The carbs trigger an explosion of stomach bacteria that produce lactic acid, which eventually kills healthy bacteria and causes inflammation and ulcers. "When it's angry and inflamed, the rumen [stomach] wall is unable to absorb nutrients, so the animal can't take advantage of the food," says Ramsey. "The animal can actually be starving with a full stomach."

The buildup of lactic acid also causes fluid to accumulate in the rumen. "In a necropsy we'll see the rumen full of sloshy fluid and food, but the animal itself is dehydrated because all their fluid is being sucked into the rumen rather than hydrating the cells of their body," Ramsey adds. To top things off, the lactic acid eventually reaches the bloodstream at dangerous levels.

At this point, most animals may look healthy, but "often they'll die of acidosis within 24, maybe 48 hours," says Ramsey. "And it's a really painful way for an animal to die."

That's not to throw blame at ranchers. "They don't want deer or elk eating food meant for horses or cattle, but it can be hard to keep determined wildlife away from haystacks," Ramsey adds."

Feeding deer because you think they need your help will eventually kill the animal.


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