Feeding deer may mean killing them with kindness

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2007

Feeding hungry deer may seem like a good idea, but it's not as simple as throwing out rolled oats, apples or hay.

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That food is likely to make deer sick, and it might even lead to eventual death.

State wildlife biologists have been getting calls in recent weeks from concerned folks wanting to help deer. That's understandable, but feeding deer doesn't help them. It's also illegal.

In winter, deer survive primarily by conserving energy, not by eating more. Research shows that deer, as well as moose, caribou and elk, eat less in winter even when they have unlimited food available.

They sustain themselves on fat reserves, supplemented by a scanty winter diet.

The main winter meals for deer in Southeast Alaska are blueberry and huckleberry stems, said state wildlife biologist Matt Kirchhoff. Red huckleberry is a particular favorite. Last summer's growth is most nutritious and most desirable.

Winter food also includes salmonberry twigs and the woody stems of perennial shrubs. They'll browse on hemlock, cedar boughs, and even spruce needles, but the digestibility of these plants is lower, and it's lower quality forage.

When deep snow in the forest forces deer down to beaches, they may be seen eating kelp. That's a bad sign.

"Kelp is not nutritious. They're just filling their rumen with something," Kirchhoff said.

During last week's storms, Kirchhoff suspected that deer were not even trying to find food.

"They were probably not moving around much, just bedding down under a tree," he said. "If it freezes and we get a crust, they'll come out and move on top of the snow."

Winter survival is not about food, it's all about conserving energy, said biologist Neil Barten.

"Deer are going to lose weight over the winter - it's a game of conserving energy and getting through winter with the reserves they've got," he said.

"This snow is like walking through oatmeal," Barten said. "A deer could be sinking up to its belly with every step. It must be exhausting."

The crucial factor is how much energy they expend. Deep snow substantially increases the energy needed for moving around and foraging. That's even worse when deer are around homes, where they may be chased by dogs or unwittingly harassed by people, wasting those critical reserves.

Deer on Kodiak Island are also having a tough winter. Larry Van Daele, the state wildlife biologist there, has been explaining why feeding deer can actually hurt them.

Deer, like cows, have four stomachs. Most of their digestion is accomplished by a suite of bacteria that break down the cell walls of the plants they eat. These microflora are specific to particular types of feed, and it takes two to three weeks to switch over from one type of feed to another.

In the wild, this isn't a problem because deer gradually switch. When a deer is offered hay, alfalfa, corn or other artificial food, however, it will eat but not be able to process the food properly.

If a deer's system survives the initial assault - usually bloat or diarrhea - and converts to the new food, it becomes dependent on that food for the rest of the winter. If that food source is cut off suddenly, it will again take two or three weeks to get used to natural foods.

"Deer become habituated to the food you're giving, them. They get dependent," Kirchhoff said. "If you start, you must follow through to spring, and people and agencies aren't equipped for that."

When state agencies try supplemental feeding programs, they are rarely successful, Van Daele noted. When deer gather where humans leave feed, they lose their natural wariness of people and other animals.

Loose dogs can decimate deer when they are bunched together in deep snow.

Kirchhoff said deer can also be pretty aggressive around feeding areas.

"The stronger deer will take the food, and so the fawns and does, the ones who maybe need it most, may not get it," he said.

Kirchhoff and Barten appreciate that people want to help deer. What's better than feeding, they suggested, is helping deer get to their natural forage.

A homeowner who sees a deer hanging out around the house every morning might make a travel path back to the woods, Barten suggested.

"You could snowshoe back into the woods, zig-zag through blueberry patches, so there's a trail," he said. "Just so the deer aren't next to the house with the dogs barking at them."

"You're basically breaking trail for the deer, which allows the deer to conserve energy," Kirchhoff said.

For more information, see http://www.maine.gov/ifw/hunttrap/deerfeed.htm

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