Feeding deer can be dangerous to their health

Posted Feb. 10, 2012, at 3:08 p.m.

Winter is tough on deer. With their usual food sources under snow, they forage for sustenance wherever they can find it. In Maine, many good-hearted residents leave food outside — table scraps, potato peelings and the like — with the intent of providing a little help to the deer who inhabit their areas. According to the experts, however, that’s a bad idea.

For the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, the panel on which I serve, the condition of Maine’s deer population has become a priority issue. As guides, hunters and wildlife officials can tell you, our deer herd is in trouble. In southern Maine, deer are still abundant, but it’s a far different story in more rural areas. The white-tailed deer population is collapsing in the western mountains, the northern forests and the Down East counties.

Rebuilding Maine’s deer herd has become a major focus of the committee’s work, not least because deer are vital to our heritage and economy. Deer hunting and viewing typically generate at least $200 million a year in economic activity, drawing money to guide and outfitting services, hunting camps, motels, restaurants and the like.

Maine has traditionally been famous for its big bucks, but as this No. 1 game animal becomes scarce, hunters will find Maine less desirable. Already, in fact, nonresident hunting license buyers have dropped from a high of 41,538 in 2002 to 27,898 in 2010. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has begun to ponder how fish and wildlife conservation will be funded if hunting revenues continue to decline.

Deer are disappearing for a variety of reasons. The past few winters have been particularly severe, increasing deer mortality. (This winter, so far, has been an exception.) Illegal hunting also remains a problem, along with declining winter habitat and human encroachment. Vehicle collisions, moreover, kill roughly 2,500 deer every year in Maine, although in 1998 the toll reached 4,500. Another major threat is posed by natural predators, particularly Eastern coyotes and, to a lesser extent, bears.

The decline in the deer population is so serious that legislators last year ordered four reports on how best to handle the problem. Those reports, recently filed with the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, address predator control, deer habitat, landowner outreach and related topics. One report deals specifically with the need to prepare a winter feeding strategy for deer and recommends an “annual media blitz” to inform the public about the risks and dangers associated with “supplemental feeding.”

According to this study, conducted by the DIF&W, supplemental feeding of deer has increased over the last two decades. It states that in many areas, supplemental feeding contributes to winter mortality of deer, and “there is good biological justification to ban feeding of deer.”

The DIF&W’s website features a section on feeding deer that begins with the admonition, “The best option is to not feed deer at all.” If you do, however, the department provides some useful tips.

• Locate deer feeding sites in or near deer wintering areas and at least a half-mile from plowed roads to minimize road-kill losses.

• Distribute feed in many locations every day to reduce competition among deer. Remember that concentrating deer in small areas can create a feeding ground for predators.

• Proper feed is natural browse items such as dogwood, birch or witch hobble. Oats or acorns can be given as diet supplements. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms the rest of the year. This change allows deer to ingest a diet of woody browse and turn the high-fiber diet into protein.

• Do not feed hay, corn, kitchen scraps, potatoes, lettuce trimmings or any animal proteins from animals rendered into feed. Deer may actually starve when fed supplemental foods during winter if they have a full belly of indigestible foods. Many deer have starved to death with stomachs packed full of hay.

• Once a feeding program has begun, do not interrupt or terminate it until spring greenery emerges.

Just because deer will eat food provided by humans does not mean it is good for them.

In most cases, supplemental feeding does not reduce deer losses during winter and in some cases can actually increase losses. If you currently feed deer or are considering starting, I urge you to please weigh the consequences carefully.

Rep. Stacey Guerin, R-Glenburn, serves on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee

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