Providing supplemental food for deer during the winter seems to make sense until you learn more about the subject. Wildlife biologists throughout North America, including those at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, advise strongly against feeding deer.
New York and Wisconsin are two states that recently made it illegal to feed deer, and several other states are considering doing the same.
Biologists give six reasons for not feeding deer, several of them resulting from the high concentrations of deer in feeding areas.
Increased Risk of Disease Transmission Vermont deer are relatively free of disease at this time, but deer concentrated at feeding sites are more likely to contract diseases from each other and contaminated food. Some of the diseases common to feeding sites are tuberculosis, salmonella and brucellosis.
Chronic wasting disease, not yet found in Vermont, is a fatal neurological disease of deer that may be transmitted among concentrations of deer at feeding sites. The infectious agent of chronic wasting disease could be present in commercial feeds. Some commercial livestock feed may be produced using rendered animal parts, which could contain the infectious agent. If the agent is present in these foods it could infect deer that eat the food. Federal regulations in effect since 1997 require feeds containing mammalian protein to be labeled to prohibit them from being fed to any ruminants, including deer and elk.
Habitat Destruction Deer continue to feed on natural foods such as trees and shrubs while being artificially fed. As deer numbers build up in the areas around the feeding sites, the trees and shrubs within reach are browsed until they are severely deformed or killed. High concentrations of deer often destroy many of the plants around homes. Research has shown heavy browse levels within one mile of artificial feeding sites.
Deer Lose Their Natural Wildness Deer can become accustomed to humans by obtaining food near houses. This usually results in deer becoming pests by destroying neighborhood gardens and shrubbery. People often become possessive of the deer they feed, leading to overpopulation of deer on a local level and difficult decisions about controlling deer populations.
High Risk of Attack By Dogs and Wild Predators As deer concentrate around feeding sites, their vulnerability to attack by domestic dogs increases substantially. Wild predators such as coyotes also quickly learn about these concentrations of deer.
The Smallest Deer Get Pushed Away Competition for food at the feeding sites can be fierce. The smallest and weakest deer, usually the fawns, get pushed to the end of the feeding line. Wild, dispersed deer rarely exhibit this behavior, allowing young deer an opportunity to eat.
Feeding Deer is Expensive Deer will eat three to five pounds of food per day. As deer learn of the feeding sites, their numbers build quickly. Soon, a few deer rapidly become several dozen. The cost of a winter feeding program can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
What You Can Do Deer depend on the crowns of mature conifers such a hemlock, spruce, balsam fir, pine, and cedar for shelter to conserve their stored energy through the winter. The loss of adequate wintering habitat is the most serious threat to Vermont’s wintering deer population. Working with your local planning commission and a professional forester to identify and manage the forests for quality deer wintering areas are important steps in improving and maintaining deer habitat.
If you have concerns about deer in your area or would like to learn more about deer management, contact a Vermont wildlife biologist at one of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department offices in Essex, Waterbury, Barre, St. Johnsbury, Springfield, or Pittsford.