Despite extended snow and cold in many parts of the state, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists say most wildlife populations survive winter without feeding help.
“We know the sight of hungry-looking deer in deep snow can be distressing, and we understand some people’s desire to feed them,” said Dave Ware, WDFW’s Game Division manager. “But artificial feeding is usually not a very effective way to help.”
A better way to help wild animals in winter is to avoid disturbing them; keep dogs confined and slow down while traveling in motor vehicles through wildlife habitat. Animals must conserve their energy to survive severe winter conditions, and human disturbance causes them to move about.
Deer that go into the winter in good condition generally can survive on the season’s limited natural food supplies, Ware explained. However, 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.
Wildlife biologists also recommend against artificial feeding because it concentrates animals, making them more vulnerable to disease, predators and poaching. Feeding areas near roads also can lead to dangerous collisions between animals and vehicles.
If people do attempt to feed deer, the effort can become very expensive—one white-tailed deer can consume three to four pounds of pelleted feed daily, and almost 500 pounds of feed over four months. 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 November through March at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area in south-central Washington, to prevent damage to nearby private cropland. The department sometimes employs winter feeding as an short-term measure in areas where winter range has been lost to wildfires, drought or other natural changes in the landscape. One example is at the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area where winter elk feeding is taking place this year as a short-term solution until long-range habitat improvements and herd-reduction efforts have time to work.
“We feed in select cases for specific reasons,” Ware said, “but it’s neither effective nor desirable to feed wildlife on a broad scale.”
For more information on winter wildlife feeding, see http://wdfw.wa.gov/factshts/wintfeed.htm on the WDFW website.