Please do not feed wildlife
by Wyoming Game & Fish
October 14, 2012
Due to the severe drought conditions in many parts of Wyoming, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is reminding people that regardless of winter conditions, there may be significant losses of wildlife this year. Each winter, many well intentioned people begin to feed mule deer, under the assumption it will ensure their survival through winter. Unfortunately, supplemental feeding often causes more harm than good to mule deer and does not measurably increase their chances of survival.
During the 1920s, wildlife management agencies began supplemental feeding across the west to prevent damage to crops. Feeding efforts expanded throughout the 1930s to include feeding every winter in some areas. Then, during the early 1940s, winter feeding studies showed mortality among fed deer was higher than non-fed deer. The studies showed feeding deer in concentrated areas resulted in overbrowsing of preferred plants in the vicinity of the feeding operation, increased dependence on supplemental feed, and increased disease transmission. As a result, most state wildlife agencies adopted a "no feed" policy for deer.
Although it sounds appealing to fatten up our mule deer by feeding them grass and alfalfa, mule deer have highly specialized digestive systems adapted to break down tough woody material like sagebrush and other shrubs. Their digestive systems contain specialized bacteria that help digest these types of plants. In fact, these bacteria are so unique that deer fed a diet of hay often die with their stomachs full of undigested food. Because of this, mule deer survival simply isn’t improved by artificial feeding.
"Mule deer and pronghorn are already in poor condition going into this fall and there is simply not much for them to eat on their transition and winter ranges. We anticipate increased mortality in many parts of Wyoming even if we have a mild or normal winter" says Daryl Lutz, Wildlife Management Coordinator in Lander. Lutz stresses, "Supplemental feeding will not increase survival among mule deer because their digestive systems cannot adapt effectively to any feed we could provide." The most susceptible mule deer and antelope will be females and young of the year, which have used their energy for growth. Female deer appear to be in particularly poor condition this year due to the demands of raising fawns during summer. Many will also be pregnant through the winter. During a normal year when spring and summer forage are plentiful these stresses are not an issue, because mule deer and antelope are able to put on the fat reserves they require to survive Wyoming’s harsh winter conditions.
"This has been the 2nd driest and 2nd hottest summer in history and according to some individuals, who have lived here their entire lives; it is the worst they can remember. The current and upcoming hunting seasons may be one of the best tools available to address this shortage of winter habitat. "Reducing densities of mule deer and pronghorn through harvest will result in more available resources for those animals entering winter." says Jason Hunter, Lander Region Wildlife Supervisor
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department recognizes and appreciates people’s concern about wintering wildlife. But, as Lutz puts it "mule deer are simply better off left alone. We all are concerned about wildlife entering the upcoming winter given the drought we’ve experienced. But we need to focus our attention and efforts on sustaining mule deer and pronghorn populations into the future. The most effective way and use of our resources is to focus on improving native habitats."
Both proponents and opponents of winter-feeding have the mule deer’s best interest in mind. However, even well designed and executed winter feeding programs do not significantly increase mule deer survival. It’s necessary to consider the biological impact to local habitats, to other species, and to mule deer in the long-term.
As you watch wildlife this fall and winter, please resist the urge to feed them because you are doing more harm than good. Virtually all wild animal populations experience year to year fluctuations. This will be a difficult winter for wildlife and for the people who enjoy them.