ST. GEORGE — As winter can be a tough time of year for Utah’s mule deer population, wildlife officials are keeping a close eye on them. If winter conditions get too severe, officials may opt to provide supplemental feed for the animals.
However, they caution the public not to feed the deer during winter as it may do more harm than good.
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials issued a notice earlier this month seeking to remind the public of the possible risks involved in feeding deer during winter. Because of all the factors involved, providing supplemental feed is considered a last resort by the agency.
As they do every winter, biologists are monitoring the state’s deer herds closely. If conditions get too severe, the biologists are prepared to feed the deer specially designed pellets. The pellets supplement the natural diet of the deer when the forage they normally eat is limited. Feeding pellets to the deer may improve the survival of some of the animals and help them make it through the winter.
“If winter conditions get too severe, though,” said Justin Shannon, big game coordinator for the DWR, “feeding deer these specially designed pellets can be worth the potential risks.”
DWR biologists monitor four points that determine whether or not they will start to give the deer supplemental feed during the winter: the amount of food available to the deer, how deep the snow gets, how cold the temperatures get and the amount of body fat they find on deer that have been killed along roads.
If at least three of those indicators become critical, DWR officials will consider providing the deer specially-designed feed pellets. The pellets themselves are created to match the needs of the deer’s dietary system — the animals can’t eat just anything left out for them.
While a deer may get a full stomach from food left behind by well-meaning individuals, they can still starve to death due to the complex nature of their digestive system, DWR officials said.
“While the DWR welcomes all the help it can get, supplemental deer feeding is usually not a good idea,” officials said on the DWR website. “Although it sounds like an act of kindness and may even help some animals get through the cold months, it can create major problems.”
When food is scarce, the deer rely on their fat reserves to get them through the winter. According to data collected last fall, the deer in the state were healthy and “had plenty of fat reserves,” Shannon said.
Risks involved in supplying supplemental
As the deer concentrate around wherever the feed is being offered, it can create an opportunity for diseases to spread among the animals. These diseases include tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease.
An increased number of deer can also cause damage to rangeland as they may linger in the area and continue to forage for food.
“The animals quickly overuse the available natural forage, which may never adequately recover,” DWR officials said.
Congregating in large numbers can also attract predators looking for a meal of their own.
Having a large number of deer around can also create potential safety and property issues. If the deer gather near a roadway, deer crossing the road can result in an accident likely resulting in the animal’s death and potentially causing injury or worse to the motorist.
Property-wise, while someone may not mind attracting deer onto his or her own property for feeding, the neighbors may not be as enthusiastic about the idea.
“When deer and elk are fed, their numbers may increase on neighboring properties where they’re not wanted,” wildlife officials said. “The DWR often becomes involved in disputes between neighbors when one wants wildlife and the other doesn’t. In many cases, one neighbor claims depredation damages to their crops or haystacks while the other feeds animals nearby.”
The DWR ends up having to reimburse the landowners who are negatively affected by the deer. It’s money that could have been better spent elsewhere, officials said on the DWR website.
Though well-intended, the feeding of the deer can also cause them to grow less fearful of humans and disrupt natural migratory patterns. A herd may linger around instead of moving on as it looks around for the supplemental food it was given the year before.
“This disruption of traditional migratory patterns can mean long-term consequences on the entire herd,” officials said.
Supplemental feeding of the deer can also be an expensive proposition, costing tens of thousands of dollars, according to the DWR website.
Because of these and other factors, the DWR has to carefully determine if the benefits outweigh the potential risks. Once a decision is made, the agency moves in “an organized, targeted and strategic way” to provide the most benefit for the deer while causing the least impact.
Don’t do this at home
“Yes, there are sometimes specific emergency situations when supplemental feeding is beneficial,” the DWR website states. “For example, deer herds in critical wintering areas that are caught in unusually deep and long-lasting snow might benefit from winter feeding.”
Emphasis placed on “might.”
The public is asked to leave the care of the deer — which are wild animals and not livestock — in the hands of DWR specialists.
“Despite the best intentions, winter feeding is usually a last resort and not in the best interest of deer,” officials said on the website.
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