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600 Capitol Way North, Olympia, WA 98501-1091

This document is provided for archival purposes only.
Archived documents do not reflect current WDFW regulations or policy and may contain factual inaccuracies.

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November 22, 1996
Contact: Madonna Luers, 509-456-4073

Winter wildlife feeding has pitfalls

Feeding deer and other wildlife during severe winter weather conditions has some pitfalls that should be considered before starting.

That's the word from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials who are fielding calls about winter wildlife feeding as below normal temperatures, snow, ice, and wind storms continue to sweep much of the state.

"The best way for deer and other wildlife to survive a severe winter is to have a healthy supply of natural food and cover," said Dave Brittell, who heads the department's Wildlife Management Program. "Supplemental feeding can help some animals when deep snow, ice cover, and abnormally cold temperatures persist, but there are some problems with doing that."

Alfalfa hay or pellets are the most commonly available deer feed. Brittell explained it takes some time for the animals' digestive systems to adjust to the change in diet from their natural browse. Deer can die of starvation with a belly full of alfalfa if they lack the fat reserves to carry them through the adjustment period.

Other wildlife feeding drawbacks include:

  • More auto accidents can occur if feeding areas draw deer across highways
  • Deer are killed more easily by poachers and predators when in groups
  • Deer drawn to hay and pellets may damage area crops, trees and shrubs, especially if humans cease providing the food.
One white-tailed deer can consume $15 worth of alfalfa pellets per month. Deer accustomed to such feed will need it through March or April, making a feed station started today at least a four-month undertaking.

So the question becomes "To feed or not to feed?"

Brittell acknowledged that it's a tough call. "We neither encourage nor discourage feeding of deer," he said. "We know that even the most aggressive feeding programs affect a very small portion of the deer population as a whole. We don't provide feed for private individuals to use, but we do recognize that many people like to feed wildlife. When they see hungry deer in deep snow, they want to help and that's commendable. We just want them to understand all the pitfalls before they get started."

The Department of Fish and Wildlife regularly feeds a few populations of deer, elk, and bighorn sheep, but usually for at least a couple of specific purposes: to control agricultural crop damage; to keep animals available for capture, health monitoring and transplant and to provide public viewing and learning experiences. WDFW winter feeding stations include Oak Creek Wildlife Area and Clemens Mountain near Yakima and Sullivan Lake northeast of Spokane.

Sometimes the department initiates winter feeding in other areas when winter range for deer or other wildlife has been lost to wildfires, or when persistent severe conditions start drawing deer into private orchards or other agricultural areas that haven't had nuisance problems.

The department's Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program packet includes information about supplemental feeding of birds and other urban/suburban wildlife. While some studies show that such backyard bird feeding can be beneficial to populations of some species, its greatest benefit is human viewing enjoyment and increased knowledge and appreciation of birds. The $5 packets are available at the department's Mill Creek office (206-775-1311) and Spokane office (509-456-4082).