OLYMPIA – Despite record snowfall in some parts of the state, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists say most deer, elk and other wildlife can survive the winter without food provided by humans.
“We know the sight of hungry-looking deer in deep snow can be distressing,” said Dave Brittell, WDFW assistant director for wildlife management. “Some people feel compelled to feed them, but artificial feeding can actually do more harm than good.”
For one thing, feeding can draw animals into areas near roads, leading to collisions with vehicles, Brittell said. It also concerns wildlife biologists because feeding concentrates animals, making them more vulnerable to disease, predators and poaching.
Wildlife managers recognize the popularity of backyard bird feeding, but that, too, can spread disease if feeding stations are not kept clean, Brittell said.
“Feeding is generally unnecessary for most bird populations, but it does allow for close-up viewing,” he said. “We recommend that birders who choose to feed keep feeding stations clean to avoid spreading disease.”
Often, the best way to help wild animals in winter is to avoid disturbing them, allowing them to conserve vital energy, Brittell said. Recommended actions include keeping dogs confined and slowing down while traveling in motor vehicles through wildlife habitat.
Brittell said deer in good condition generally can survive the winter on the season’s limited natural food supplies. Moreover, it can take several weeks for a deer’s digestive system to adjust to hay or other artificial feed. If they don’t have enough fat reserves to get through the adjustment period, deer can die even with bellies full of feed they can’t digest.
For this reason, sustaining deer or elk can be an expensive proposition, Brittell said.
“One white-tailed deer can consume three to four pounds of pelleted feed daily, which amounts to almost 500 pounds of feed over four months,” he said. “Once feeding is started, animals come to expect it and may damage nearby landscape plants or agricultural areas if artificial food is discontinued before natural forage plants emerge in the spring.”
Although WDFW discourages individuals from attempting to feed, the department conducts winter elk feeding in a few special circumstances. For example, WDFW feeds elk from December through March at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area in south-central Washington, to prevent damage to nearby private cropland. WDFW also employs winter feeding as a short-term measure in some areas where winter range has been lost to wildfires, drought or other natural changes in the landscape.
“We feed in select cases for specific reasons,” Brittell said, “But it’s neither effective nor desirable to feed wildlife on a broad scale.”
Wildlife biologists acknowledge that extreme and persistent winter conditions will take a toll on some wildlife populations. But that is just a fact of nature, Brittell said.
“Winter has always been the season that keeps wildlife populations in balance with available habitat,” he said. “People can’t change that, and it can create real problems when they try to do so.”
General information on winter wildlife feeding is available on the WDFW website at http://wdfw.wa.gov/factshts/wintfeed.htm. WDFW’s Winter Bird Feeding webpage is at http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/backyard/winter_feed.htm.