by Todd A. Black
Photos by © Derek Peterson
I’m sitting here in my office (I started this article last spring after our horrible winter in Northern Utah) on a nice spring almost summer like day but I have to laugh with the amount of snow still out on the mountain—it’s almost unreal. Last year at this time you could drive across and over the mountain but this year I’ll be lucky to make it next month. Right now the grass is green, antlers are growing, and fawns are dropping. All is good right? Not really, this past year Utah/Colorado/Idaho and many other core western mule deer states suffered what was likely in many places significantly high winter mortality as we experienced one of the coldest, heaviest snow fall, longest winters in recent memory. Many states implemented emergency feeding plans, other states started too late, and some made the difficult decision not to feed at all.
This past winter, MDF published reports and articles on member feeding efforts as well as the number of dollars donated and spent feeding mule deer. As always, I am amazed at the sheer number of volunteers that step up to the plate to help in these efforts. I myself along with some of my kids have participated in these types of efforts in past years. I’m also continually amazed at the differences in how the agencies respond to feeding pressures and politics. Not for one second should state wildlife agencies question the money, time, and energy it takes to feed deer (especially if the derive any sort of revenue from the sales of deer permits) and the volunteer help that comes with that effort—this year was evidence of that as literally thousands of dollars were donated to help feed our deer. We sportsman and conservationists have proven time and time again that we are willing to do what it takes to help and save the deer.
So what’s the deal with feeding? Is it good? Is it bad? Does it help? Does it hurt? What do you think? If you just look at the scientific peer reviewed published literature, like
most research, the results are mixed. In some areas under some circumstances researcher ‘A’ has showed it to be and effective means of increasing overall survival and fitness of those animals fed. There is evidence that animals in and around feeding areas have higher doe and fawn survival versus those on none fed sites. While other areas researcher ‘B’ has show inconclusive results and researcher ‘C’ showed no effect at all with fed versus unfed deer. Hence, as you can imagine the question still looms heavy with many wildlife agencies—should we feed or should we not. It’s ironic though because many of them have some sort of policy or general feeding guidelines but most I would argue are not thinking or even looking at the bigger picture and most don’t understand the need to feed and the more critical factor of when to feed.
What is that bigger picture you ask—good! Here’s why I think that a well thought out, well planned, and yes even well funded feeding program is a critical part of a mule deer management plan that we have now and into the future. Its critically important in the core states where winter range is limited and being over run by houses or in mountain valleys where deer can’t migrate to lower elevations to escape from winter snow storms. However, before I speak to the why I think it’s good to develop a feeding program, let me first point out a few why arguments you might here as too why it’s a bad idea to feed.
I’m sure there are more but I think most could be tied back to these listed in this article. They are no doubt valid concerns and strong argument points for the non-feeder crowd and I’m not saying they don’t happen or that they don’t exist, however, in my mind the why nots certainly are not justification for the why tos and the good that can come from a PROPERLY executed deer feeding program.
- disease yes by feeding and concentrating deer you run a higher risk of disease transmission among those local deer being feed. But what is that higher risk is it? Is it 1% 25% what? The truth is that disease transmission is just as likely not to occur as it is to happen and if it does well you lost your deer anyway but at least you didn’t sit back and watch them starve to death.
- stress there are certainly some issues with stress and deer being under stress due to crowded conditions, human presence, predation (maybe even excessive predation), and even domestic animal (dog) harassment. But is the stress of an empty stomach more of a stress then dealing with these or are you better able to deal with these if you don’t have an empty stomach. Think about it.
- physical changes one of the hardest things for the deer to process is the change in feed. They have just come out of the fall eating basically dry, not very
rich or ‘hot’ groceries. When feeding occurs it is typically ‘hot’ high nutrient, high protein diet which is often hard to process and you typically see deer having diarrhea or other bowel problems. Which can lead to #1. In my mind this is likely the greatest threat to feeding but with certain measures it can be a reduced threat. 4—being close to suburbia and increasing the chances for deer vehicle collisions (DVCs). In many areas that I am familiar with much of the feeding is done way too close to homes, roads, and even highways, This certainly increases the likelihood that a deer is going to get whacked on the road. This past year (granted I didn’t get out in the hills as much as I would have liked but) I think I saw just as many deer dead along the highways as I did in the foothills.
Alright now to the whys. First, let me clearly state that I’m not saying in any way shape or form that we should be feeding every winter and every where any time an inch or five of snow falls to the ground. Mule deer have evolved with winter they are able to cope with normal winters, some winter mortality happens every year with our without snow and cold. Weather happens and sometimes it adversely effects our mule deer populations, it’s just a fact of being a mule deer and living where they live. Many places across the west have ample winter range and the deer can migrate further down or out and away to get away from the snow and cold. However, in many areas across the west especially those that have lost significant habitat due to development and or those areas that winter a plethora of deer in areas such as mountain valleys that tend to be colder and have heavier snows then other areas ought to have a feeding plan and here are my reasons why.
1—this is my favorite and it just kills me that we don’t think about this that much. If you are a state wildlife agency and you get very little tax dollars to run your agency and you make up the bulk of your annual budget off of the sale of deer licenses/tags/permits and your primary product you are trying to sale is mule deer then guess what? You ought to invest some time and money into that product to ensure its sustainability and productivity over time. Right, I mean that just makes sense doesn’t it? I guarantee you those states that have some sort of private wildlife management and hunting operation feed their deer during hard winter months. They have a product they are selling and for a good price I might add and you can dang well bet they are doing everything they can to improve, increase, and protect that product and to invest into is future.
You don’t have to look back too far in the annual reports to see that population numbers just don’t recover from hard winters; while they might increase between bad winter events they don’t reach previously high levels. Where I sit in Cache Valley in Northern Utah is a perfect example of this. Prior to the winter of ’83 the Cache unit was one of the best units in the state for deer numbers and big bucks but to be truthful it’s basically in the depths of despair
now days. Numbers have not returned because of the loss of deer during that winter alone. While production on the Cache still remains one of the highest in the state bad winters, loss of critical winter range, and not having a locally area specific feeding program will forever keep numbers low.
2—increased fitness and production of the herd. Duh right? Again the risks of the why nots don’t carry the weight to what a well thought out, well planned, and well timed feeding program can do to maintain and hopefully increase your herd. You don’t see the ranching community just dump their cows out on the winter range and not feed them when there is 2-3 feet of snow on the ground. Remember that production and antler growth are secondary to body maintenance and self preservation. Meaning that you are going to loose fawns from pregnant does and bucks will grow smaller antlers if they can’t maintain a certain body condition and by not having groceries you can’t maintain that body condition needed to fawn and grow big antlers, it’s kind of like simple math, you can’t get two by adding zero to one. Even if you still have a hard enough winter and cold enough temperatures to loose the majority of your fawn crop you can still have a healthy productive doe crop that can quickly replace lost fawns from the previous year. At least then your herd won’t be completely decimated.
3—one of the biggest reasons I can see to feed now in the year 2000’s is to keep the deer off the roads. I firmly believe that we lost more deer this year in many areas to DVCs then we lost because of snow dept and cold. It was almost unbelievable the number of deer and elk that were right down along the roads this winter and saddening to see the continual and increasing number of dead deer along the road killed by vehicles. State agencies should look at traditional wintering concentration areas and designate areas within these larger areas that the snow can be removed, the food delivered, and keep the public and their dos out. Your deer have a much better chance of staying alive on the feed row then in town where they will die from DVCs.
4—in conjunction with #3 keep the deer out of town, out of back yards, out of the neighbor’s shrubs. I would think the number of phone calls and the number of complaints, and the number of depredation issues, and the number of accidents waiting to happen alone would be enough for wildlife agencies to have a feeding program. This would drive me absolutely crazy to have to deal with these types of calls day and day out over the course of several weeks during a hard winter.
Whew…take a breath now. I guess the big question is what is to be done? Do we sit back and hope for the best or do we put our heads together and try to figure something out? Once again, I’ll say it, mule deer management isn’t entirely an exact science; it’s just as much a political/social science, even a bit of artistic science as it is biology. There are no easy answers but to sit back and do nothing or wait too long to do something I don’t think we are being wise stewards of a resource we all enjoy. A solution to this problem might be as easy as uniting local MDF chapters and sportsman’s groups to work with state and federal land and wildlife mangers to start looking into developing LOCAL feeding programs that clearly identify mechanisms (snow depth, temperatures, loss of winter range) that trigger us to initiate a deer feeding effort. I think LOCAL plans are more effective. Too often in state and federal agencies these days you have such a big
turn over in personnel that a biologist just isn’t in the area long enough to see the effects of a bad winter or two. Most of the time the locals those guys who watch the deer every year know the critical wintering areas, have seen the bad winters, and will have great ideas on what and where to do things. I believe as these groups work together they will be able to come up with some innovative solutions that will be able to help our deer when they need it the most.
By the time this article hits the stands we will be right in another winter. It will be interesting to see just what the effect of our winter was last year in areas that experienced significant winter loss. How did populations respond? Did the surviving does all produce fawns? What age class of bucks do we have out there? Did all the mature bucks die? Did we succeed or fail in our efforts?