To Feed or Not to Feed
As the winter of 2014-15 keeps on bringing storms and heavy snow cover past the end of March and into April, many people have been asking us a question that often comes up, “should we be feeding whitetail deer to help them through the winter?” Sometimes this question is phrased in terms of considering whether “we” collectively as a province should be instilling a winter feeding program, and other times it is by well-intentioned individuals who would like to know if “they” should begin a winter-feeding program. After all, we are still in the midst of what could end up being a very difficult winter for our whitetail deer population, and it comes on the tails of the 2013-14 winter which was more severe than average and lasted later than normal as well. As we have examined in our “Whitetail Wintering” article, New Brunswick is at the top of the northern range for whitetail deer, and severe winter weather can have a significant effect on their survival rates. When we have significant snowfall, especially with crust, and it lasts deep into spring there can be higher than normal winter-kill. When these winters come in back to back years, we may see a serious decline in the population. Should “we” be giving the deer a helping hand? It's a legitimate and a compassionate question, but it's not one that has an easy answer.
Examining this issue is not something that should be taken lightly, nor can it be given a quick “yes” or “no” answer. Feeding deer is a complicated issue, and has many layers.
We will begin by examining some of the problems that can be caused by a feeding program. Sometimes feeding deer can cause more harm than good, depending upon what that “feeding” entails. If you feed deer unmixed oats, corn or hay in late winter can actually be harmful or even fatal. Deer adjust their digestive systems in the winter to be able to handle their normal browse of barks, cedar browse, hardwood buds, twigs, and other almost undigestable items. Improper supplemental feeding can result in bloody diarrhea and even death from things like entertoxemia, and lactic acidosis.
Biologist Rod Cumberland says that “the high starch loads of these grains combined with the deer's limited gut bacteria cause them to bloat and die with a full stomach. Anyone starting this in the late winter will kill a lot of deer from acidosis and rumenitis.” He shared that during his time as provincial deer biologist, many deer upon autopsy were found with stomachs full of hay in the late winter and early spring. These deer could literally be thought of as being “killed by kindness” from well-meaning but uninformed people giving them food that they just cannot digest. This month on March 20, 2015, the New Hampshire fish and game department found 12 deer that were killed by a supplemental feeding program. Their solemn discovery can be found here.
There is however some people who are able to successfully feed deer this diet throughout the winter with success. Cumberland says this is because feeding began early and slowly so the deer have become accustomed to this feed throughout the season, and still will have enough of the correct digestive bacteria to handle it. Running a program like this throughout the winter also runs other risks, however. First you may be drawing in deer out of a traditional bedding area and holding them in inferior wintering areas that have trouble supporting them. If they end up in an inferior area that perhaps is not sheltered by the wind or does not have enough browse to support them, it could have a devastating impact on the associated deer. We should also mention that having groups of deer feeding from the same location also can lead to sharing of saliva-covered foods that can create serious problems in areas affected by chronic wasting disease (CWD) (and is usually prohibited by law in these areas). And if you are running a feeding program close to a roadway or even one of our well-used snowmobile trails you could be bringing the deer into a dangerous area and causing risks of collisions. Those in the Hampton or Quispamsis areas of New Brunswick would be able to share cautionary tales of the collision dangers posed by having a deer herd in an urban area.
Further problems can occur with a long-established feeding program in terms of, what do the deer do once the individual stops for whatever reason. Perhaps the individual didn't realize the commitment level (and cost) of providing that much feed for however many deer they attracted. Or perhaps they have been forced to give it up because of life changes. If the deer have been moved out of an area that formerly supported them, or (in long-established programs) have even been taught to rely on the humans in that area instead of their wintering areas, they are likely to suffer or even starve if deprived of it. Humans do not live forever... and the feeding program will eventually cease. What then?
There is no doubt that whitetail feeding programs can assist in providing much-needed nutrients through a difficult winter if the proper precautions are taken and the correct food is provided. While most will caution against winter feeding, including Cumberland, he also mentions that there are over a dozen scientific research papers that show without a doubt that supplemental feeding deer can improve survivorship, as well as improve reproduction in overwintering deer. But we believe the risks outweigh the reward in terms of feeding. Most provinces and states discourage or even outlaw the practice, and you will find many of the links at the bottom of this article. Deer are wild animals that are supposed to live and eat in the wild. As we stated at the start of the article, winter feeding is a complicated topic, and for it to be beneficial requires a tremendous amount of work, reading, and understanding. “This is why by far the best advice is to refrain from it – particularly given the long-term consequences to deer overwintering behaviour,” says Cumberland. “However there are instances where – if done correctly, deer may benefit in the short term.”
Perhaps the best thing an individual can do for whitetails is in relation to habitat. Rod Cumberland has pointed out that the majority of deer in New Brunswick are now found in wildlife management zones with the largest amount of private land, and has surmised that it is because the crown land is now largely uninhabitable with a lack of food for the deer (and other wildlife). So, for those of you who care about the deer herd (and other species), the first major thing we can do is improve the habitat for them. The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) is a growing group of both private landowning individuals and individuals concerned with the current deer habitat, strive to improve habitat for whitetails. Members are well-versed in how to create optimum land for holding and helping deer and are active in improving their land towards those goals. Should you be interested in learning more about this group, please visit www.qdma.com or contact someone from a local chapter (there is actually a chapter in New Brunswick that meets regular in Fredericton). In the New Brunswick chapter, most QDMA members hunt Crown land rather than possessing their own woodlots. Don’t let the lack of land discourage you from attending these meetings.
We must again mention that the effect of severe winter weather is magnified by the lack of food available for deer on our province's crown land now. Deer must put on a great deal of weight and fat in order to prepare for the lean times they will encounter through the winter. Biologists tell us that the fat reserves of an adult doe can amount to 30% of their body weight at the beginning of the winter. If the deer are unable to put on the needed fat prior to winter, they are put at greater risk of death as the winter grows long and the fat reserves are totally used up. With what Rod Cumberland shared with us about the amount of feed that is being destroyed through our current forestry practices, it definitely explains how much more of a devastating impact we can see in a difficult winter (or two back to back). If you have not read our interview with Cumberland on the state of our province's deer herd, it can be found here.
Cumberland says that the establishment of a coyote population, though not the only cause of the population drop, needs to be taken into effect. He says, “Coyotes have greatly complicated the deer winter ecology equation. The 30% additional weight in fat used to get a deer through 120 days of difficult winter conditions in NB. With a new predator (since 1980s) that chases deer, regardless of whether the deer is actually caught and killed, these chases deplete a deer’s fat resources quicker than per-coyote estimates of fat consumption.” Cumberland believes this has resulted in a lower number of days that the fat reserves can last.
Upon review of the data and discussion with biologists, we still discourage individuals from beginning a feeding program with unnatural food habit. As we mention, deer have adapted to their habitat, and human intervention often causes much more harm than good. There are countless studies and reports, such as this one from Nova Scotia illustrate the challenges that come along with attempting to feed deer. An entire series of articles could be written discussing the pros and cons of a whitetail feeding program, but we feel the best stance at this time is to advise our readers to avoid feeding deer
We acknowledge with the distress that many hunters and outdoor fanatics feel over the state of the deer herd and the forestry practices, there may be many who will feel the “reward outweighs the risk” and want to help. Our advice would be as follows: there is a more “natural” feeding program that you can do for whitetails if you have land that holds deer. Late winter trimming or cutting of hardwoods to make them accessible for the deer would provide a more natural food for them that they are used to eating these times of year. (we do not advocate any cutting on land that is not your own without permission). When the winter is extremely cold and long and snow cover stays deep into spring, caloric use is higher among the deer. As a result, deer wintering areas can be nearly completely stripped of all accessible food sources. The tender twigs, needles, and buds that are higher in the trees are those they are unable to reach. Hardwoods, cedar browse, hemlocks... all can be trimmed or cut to the same results. If you chose to cut down that tree, it should generate more browse in the form of sprigs from the trunk in the coming year. Trimming leaves the tree standing for future years as well. To those who are concerned with the severe winters, this is perhaps the best solution to actually helping them, without running the risk of harming them in so many already mentioned ways. The QDMA advice would be to plant winter foods that deer can access as part of their natural foraging activity. The key is to keep it natural – away from roads without artificial foods and without congregating deer with nose-to-nose contact.
Further information about province/state positions on feeding can be found at the following links:
Contact us and let us know!