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Unintended consequences of deer feeding

Posted on January 28, 2013

Paula PiattAs we settle into another North Country winter, huddled close to the woodstove, as hunters we can’t help but wonder about the wildlife out there, with no woodstove or even a pair of mittens to keep them warm.

Even the hardest among us wish we could “do something” for the deer and the turkeys and the less fortunate out there “on their own.” When it comes to deer, outdoors people can be especially possessive. Some with the resources will run right out to the feed store, buy a couple of bags of corn and pile it high, hoping the deer will come right in for the feast. Forget that it’s technically illegal in New York state, in all but one county. Many are convinced that deer won’t get through the winter without it.

Well, you just might be killing them.

A story in an upcoming edition of New York Outdoor News details the biological problems with winter rescue feeding and you can check that out in our Jan. 25 edition, but suffice it to say that the whiteails’ systems can’t handle wild swings in the types of diets available to them. Thinning out your woodlot and giving them the tops of the trees to feed on – now that could potentially save their lives in a tough winter.

I wish the DEC would have mentioned all that, and the fact that rescue feeding, which in turn can sicken the deer, may actually take its toll on antler size.

DEC implemented its feeding ban in 2002, explaining that it didn’t want deer congregating at feeding sites because of the possible spread of chronic wasting disease. CWD had yet to be discovered in New York (that would come in 2005), and the department, realizing that the disease can be spread through close contact among deer in saliva, urine and feces, felt a feeding ban was in order. (A court has since overturned the ban in Sullivan County only.)

They weren’t wrong, but there is much more to the story – and those pieces are more compelling than stopping the spread of CWD.

In marketing the new law, the state should have relied upon the fact that rescue feeding itself – never mind spreading a disease that may or may not be contracted – can kill the deer. Neil Dougherty is a habitat consultant with North Country Whitetails in Newark, N.Y. and has seen deer, filled with the best-intentioned hay and corn, laying dead because they couldn't digest it.

How many winter deer feeders, if they knew of that potential danger, would continue the hit-and-miss practice of setting out a 50-pound bag of corn now and then?

I suspect, however, that most deer hunters, bent on “getting the deer through the winter” may have a big buck hanging around their woods. And they simply want him to be there next year when the season rolls around. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if they knew that rescue feeding could potentially shrink those antlers, would they still be as gung-ho to put that feed in the backyard?

A sick deer in the winter could, according to Dougherty, lose as much as 20 percent of its antler growth the next year. There goes your trophy buck.

It’s only natural for us to want to “help” when it comes to things outside the window in the winter. But if you’re not going to give wildlife what they truly need, it’s best not to do anything at all. Let nature take its course.

It may not be pretty, but its nature

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