Is supplemental feeding bad for deer?

April 16, 2013

Concerned hunters often try to help deer survive another harsh winter by feeding local herds. For many hunter, that means dumping buckets of corn on the ground to give whitetails something to eat during the cruelest months. Yet in many places, that corn might be doing far more harm than good.

What’s so bad about giving the local deer a helping hand to make it through the winter? Everything, agree a cadre of wildlife biologists. Numerous states have banned feeding after the discovery of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in white-tailed deer. The ban is designed to prevent the further spread of CWD by keeping deer from concentrating in small areas as they often do around feeding stations.

Vermont, however, doesn’t have CWD, nor is there any sign of bovine tuberculosis. So why is supplemental feeding illegal in Vermont? Shawn Haskell, leader of the state’s deer team, says post-season feeding poses a variety of problems for whitetails. Believe it or not, giving the local deer herd a daily bucket of corn can actually kill the very animals hunters and wildlife watchers are trying to save, says Haskell. In many cases, people wait until deer are on the verge of starvation when they start feeding. That’s a virtual death sentence.

“A deer’s digestive system basically can go into shock and quit working properly because it doesn’t have time to switch from the natural winter diet to a suddenly introduced diet of corn,” says Haskell. “I see diarrhea from deer in the late winter and that tells me someone has been feeding them corn. It also tells me that I’m seeing evidence of a dead deer walking, because that animal isn’t absorbing any nutrients. The food it eats is just passing straight through the digestive system.”

Wildlife managers in some Western states do feed deer and elk during periods of severe winter weather, but those feeding programs have evolved from random hay drops that turned out to do more harm than good, to the point now where a specific diet that addresses biological and nutritional issues is provided. Instead of hay, biologists now use a pelleted blend of natural and cultivated foods that actually helps deer and elk survive severe winters. Still, supplemental feeding is a contentious issue and one that even divides state biologists, who either oppose it or favor it for economical and social reasons.

Population Control

Even in the South — where winter weather isn’t a limiting factor — many biologists strongly oppose supplemental feeding. While it might draw deer into the open for recreational viewing, it’s unnecessary and it artificially inflates deer numbers, says Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Nelson Lafon.

“We don’t need any more deer,” he says.

However, that’s exactly what some private landowners in Texas want, says Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Mitch Lockwood. Supplemental feeding in Texas is as common in some regions as deer hunting itself. Most ranches that manage heavily for deer and deer hunting have some sort of supplemental feeding program.

“Lands that have a sound management plan often include a feeding program, as well, because deer are a commodity,” says Lockwood. “It can definitely increase the number of fawns, and we often allow landowners quite a bit of leeway when it comes to the management of their deer herd, so supplemental feeding can benefit those landowners. When you think about it, you can raise all the deer you want on a parking lot as long as you provide them with adequate nutrition.”

The key, of course, is a management plan that includes selective harvest to maintain a deer population in balance with the available food, whether that food is natural or provided by a human hand. In most cases, added Lockwood, feeding deer outside of hunting season works best on high-fence operations where natural forage is limited and higher deer numbers are desirable.

For Haskell, however, the notion of feeding to help free-ranging deer make it through New England’s sometimes devastating winters isn’t a valid reason to dump corn on the ground. It can actually lead to lower deer numbers because, he says, when food is scarce and deer are hungry, they become extremely protective of the available food and will frequently chase smaller animals away. That means fawns go hungry and ultimately starve to death, creating a gap in age classes, particularly in seasons following a severe winter. Some deer can actually eat too much and overload their digestive systems, which can also be fatal.

“Feeding removes the ‘wildness’ of deer, creating an unnatural tolerance of humans and dogs; it forces deer to cross roads and it creates an easy opportunity for predators such as coyotes,” adds Haskell.

Spreading Disease

In some regions, the biggest threat to deer from feeding has more to do with disease transmission than giving deer the wrong food at the wrong time. CWD has been a hot-button issue for Wisconsin wildlife managers since it was first discovered in 2002, and biologists fear supplemental feeding could help the disease spread even faster. It was recently discovered in a captive deer facility in Michigan. There have been outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis in Michigan as well, and studies have attributed the spread of TB directly to baiting and feeding. Haskell says the artificial concentration of deer around feeding station creates an easy atmosphere for diseases to jump from one animal to another.

“They stick their noses in the same spot repeatedly, and they walk around in each others’ urine and feces. It’s just not a good thing to feed deer,” he insists.

Some hunters will feed deer, even if the purpose is questionable or even if it is illegal. Those who do feed should consider using some sort of pelleted food that has a variety of ingredients. Commercial horse, cow or deer pellets are a far better option than corn. Also, it’s advisable to spread the food out over a large area and alternate feeding areas to avoid heavy concentrations of deer for a prolonged period. That will reduce long-term damage to the vegetation and it might reduce any risk of disease transmission.

The best thing any hunter can do, says Haskell, is to take a few deer during hunting season and then let the animals make it through winter on their own. Some will, and in some areas, others won’t. That’s how nature works. Feeding them might seem like the right thing to do, but unless your land is under an intense management program, even the best intentions are often misguided.