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Winter feeding of deer and elk can do more harm than good



February 7, 2008


Michelle Dennehy, (503) 947-6022
Fax: (503) 947-6009

SALEM, Ore.—Harsh winter weather in parts of Oregon has resulted in tougher foraging conditions for deer and elk and increased calls to ODFW offices by people wanting to feed them. However, wildlife biologists caution against winter feeding of deer and elk, as it usually does more harm than good.

Each year, deer and elk die because they have been fed the wrong food by well-intentioned people. In Klamath Falls in January, a wildlife rehabilitator reported that six deer died because they had been fed grain and alfalfa. Deer die annually in the Bend area because they have been fed cracked corn. Biologists have found “starving” deer and elk with stomachs full of unsuitable high-protein grains like barley, wheat and even corn oats barley mixed with molasses.

Both deer and elk have very complex digestive tracts that require certain levels of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and the proper rumen bacteria to break down and digest forage. Their diet requirements change with the seasons and are best met by native forage, which in winter naturally has lower protein. An animal that has been foraging naturally may not have the proper bacteria to digest high protein food like grain. Deliberately feeding it may inhibit digestion, lead to secondary infections, and cause it to starve or die from infection.

“Any time feed quality is drastically changed for the better, elk go through a period of time where they can’t take advantage of the feed and will get sick and lose weight,” explained Mark Kirsch, district wildlife biologist in Pendleton. “We have had elk that are otherwise healthy just fall over and die when they go from poorer quality natural winter range to high-protein forage such as planted green winter wheat or grains.”

Feeding deer and elk invites other problems, too:

  • It concentrates them, which leads to the easier spread of disease and parasites and easier take by predators.
  • Feeding deer and elk attracts their natural predators like cougars and coyotes to areas of human activity.
  • Once wildlife associate people with giving them food, they come to expect it. Feeding will invite more deer and elk to your property and encourage them to stay. 
  • Feeding can cause deer and elk to become habituated to humans and aggressive towards them.
  • Concentrating deer and elk in human-settled areas can lead to an increase in vehicle collisions and conflicts between wildlife and pets.
  • Concentrating deer and elk can hurt habitat by encouraging excessive grazing.

“While well-intentioned people want to help deer and elk by feeding them, it isn’t the best course of action,” said Pete Test, ODFW’s deer and elk coordinator. “If you want to help wildlife, recognize they are going through a tough time in the winter and give them space to get through it without disturbing them.”

Here are some tips on how to help deer and elk during the winter:

  • Don’t approach them. Getting close will encourage them to run away, wasting precious energy reserves.
  • Keep your pets far away.
  • Drive more carefully because deer and elk forage at lower elevations, and closer to roads, in the winter.
  • If you have shrubs on your property, knock the snow off to expose some natural food for deer and elk.
  • Support efforts to protect deer and elk winter range in Oregon.

Also remember that it is normal for deer and elk to lose weight—and for some to die—during the winter. “Deer and elk naturally lose weight in the winter, an evolutionary adaptation to the low food supply in winter,” explained Doug Cottam, ODFW district biologist in Newport. “The loss of some deer and elk during the winter is also natural. It’s Mother Nature’s way of keeping herds healthy overall.”

How will Oregon’s big game herds survive the winter?

Wildlife biologists won’t be able to confirm how deer and elk survived this winter until March or April, when annual aerial and ground surveys are conducted. However, staff in ODFW’s 24 field offices across the state are closely monitoring the situation.

Northeast region districts have received lots of snow but temperatures have not been cold for long enough yet for biologists to predict abnormally high levels of mortality. Klamath and portions of Lake County are buried in snow so it could be rough winter for area herds. Cold weather along the mid-coast will exacerbate problems for black-tailed deer suffering from Deer Hair Loss Syndrome. Farther south in Coos County, the lack of sun is also making for poor forage but conditions are not yet a cause for alarm.

This year’s extra moisture and snow pack could help deer and elk in the long run by alleviating drought conditions in eastern Oregon and improving summer forage. Foraging conditions in the months leading up to winter are the best predictor of survival rates, because well-fed deer and elk are most likely to survive hard winters. So while some big game herds entered winter in less than ideal condition, this year’s moisture means they could be in much better shape for next year. 

“The best way to promote survival during tough winters is to enable big game to put on large reserves of fat during the spring, summer and fall so they go into winter as healthy and fat as possible,” explained Cottam.

State feeding programs

ODFW does regularly feed deer and elk on a few state wildlife areas during the winter to keep them from damaging adjacent agricultural lands. These feeding programs are long-term commitments that require significant financial and staffing resources. Feeding starts early in the season so wildlife’s digestive systems do not have to quickly readjust to new food types, and continues every day, no matter what, until forage conditions improve. Feeding areas are located away from human-populated areas to decrease conflicts. ODFW also disease-tests deer and elk that use the feed sites to ensure disease does not become a problem.

In extraordinary situations, ODFW has implemented broader emergency feeding programs but these are costly and often ineffective. Emergency feeding programs only reach a small portion of the wildlife affected. They are generally used only when a catastrophic loss of wildlife is expected.  

Field observations do not yet suggest a situation so dire that emergency feeding is needed this year. The department will continue to carefully monitor the condition of deer and elk this winter and make appropriate decisions to protect the long-term health of wildlife in the state.



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