Richmond, VA — Effective September 1, a regulation making it illegal to feed deer will go into effect statewide. The prohibition runs through the first Saturday in January.
This regulation does NOT restrict the planting of crops such as corn and soybeans, wildlife food plots, and backyard or schoolyard habitats. It is intended to curb the artificial feeding of deer that leads to negative consequences.
Problems with feeding deer include: unnaturally increasing population numbers that damage natural habitats; disease transmission, including tuberculosis as well as many deer diseases; and human-deer conflicts such as deer/vehicle collisions and inappropriate semi-taming of wildlife.
In addition, feeding deer has many law enforcement implications. Deer hunting over bait is illegal in Virginia, but deer feeding has not been. Distinguishing between who is feeding deer and who is hunting over bait has often caused law enforcement problems for the Department in the past.
Deer Feeding Has Been Booming Along with Population
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) Deer Project Coordinators Matt Knox and Nelson Lafon noted that over the past twenty years the practice of feeding deer has expanded across the eastern United States among both deer hunters and the non-hunting general public. The most common reason for feeding deer is to improve their nutrition and to supplement the habitat’s ability to support more deer; in other words, to increase the carrying capacity for deer.
According to Knox, many people feed deer because they believe it will keep them from starving, but this is not a legitimate reason to feed deer in Virginia. In Virginia, deer die-offs due to winter starvation have been almost nonexistent and according to Lafon, “We do not need more deer in Virginia. In fact, we need fewer deer in many parts of the state.”
Nelson Lafon is in the process of completing a revision of the Department’s Deer Management Plan. Based on his research, it appears that the citizens of the Commonwealth would like to see deer populations reduced over most of the state. Lafon noted that Virginia’s deer herds could be described as overabundant from a human tolerance perspective and stated that feeding deer only makes this overabundance problem worse.
Is Your Bird Feeder Attracting Deer?
Supplemental feeding artificially concentrates deer on the landscape, leading to over-browsed vegetation, especially in and around feeding sites. Over-browsing destroys habitat needed by other species, including songbirds.
It is not unheard of for deer to take advantage of bird feeders and begin to eat spilled birdseed. Individuals who inadvertently are feeding deer through their bird feeders may be requested by VDGIF game wardens to temporarily remove feeders until the deer disperse.
Deer Are Wild Animals
Deer are wildlife and belong to all the citizens of the Commonwealth. In their natural state, deer are wild animals that have a fear of humans because we have preyed upon deer for thousands of years. However, when deer are fed by people, they lose this fear, becoming less wild and often semi-domesticated.
Fed deer are often emboldened to seek human foods, leading them into conflict with people. Despite their gentle appearance, they can become lethally dangerous during mating season capable of goring and slashing with their sharp hooves and antlers. There are numerous cases across the country of individuals injured by deer they treated as pets.
People often treat the deer they feed as if they own them, even going so far as to name individual deer. Not only does this association diminish the “wildness” of “wildlife”, it also leads to a mistaken notion regarding ownership of wildlife. Deer and other wildlife are owned by citizens of the Commonwealth and are managed by the Department as a public resource.
Deer Feeding Congregates Animals, Increasing the Spread of Disease
The increase in deer feeding that has taken place in Virginia over the past decade now represents one of Virginia’s biggest wildlife disease risk factors. According to VDGIF Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Jonathan Sleeman, deer feeding sets the stage for maintaining and facilitating the spread of disease.
According to Dr. Sleeman, diseases are a big issue in deer management today across the United States. Feeding deer invariably leads to the prolonged crowding of animals in a small area, resulting in more direct animal to animal contact and contamination of feeding sites. Deer feeding has been implicated as a major risk factor and contributor in the three most important deer diseases in North America today. These include tuberculosis, brucellosis, and chronic wasting disease (CWD). Fortunately, none of these diseases have been found in deer in Virginia, although CWD is present in West Virginia, less than 10 miles from Frederick County, Virginia.
Please Don’t Feed Deer
It is clear that the negative consequences of feeding deer outweigh the benefits. If you are not feeding deer, you should not start. If you are currently feeding deer, you should now stop. Feeding deer is now against the law between September 1 and January 6, the first Saturday in January. If anyone sees or suspects someone of illegally feeding deer during this time period, or observes any wildlife violations, please report it to the Department’s Wildlife Crime Line at 1-800-237-5712.
It is the mission of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to maintain optimum populations of all species to serve the needs of the Commonwealth; to provide opportunity for all to enjoy wildlife, inland fish, boating, and related outdoor recreation; and to promote safety for persons and property in connection with these outdoor activities.