SPOKANE -- Eastern Washington's severe winter weather has deer raiding backyard bird feeders and sympathetic people calling the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) for deer feeding advice.
"Sunflower seeds aren't the best thing for a deer to eat, but starting to feed deer alfalfa pellets or hay now may not help them either," says WDFW wildlife biologist Howard Ferguson of Spokane.
"It takes time for a deer's digestive system to adjust from natural browse to alfalfa," Ferguson explains. "If it doesn't have enough fat reserves to carry through that adjustment, it can still starve with a belly full of hay."
There are other reasons why WDFW does not encourage feeding deer. Deer concentrated at feeding stations are more likely to spread diseases, they are more vulnerable to predation or poaching, they can become road-kill if drawn across roads, and can become a nuisance to adjacent landowners.
"Maintaining a proper deer feeding program is also expensive," Ferguson said. "A properly conducted feeding operation would have started last month or earlier and would continue through March or April."
Since one deer can consume three or four pounds of feed daily, and with alfalfa pellets running at least 12 cents a pound, a four-or-five-month-long feeding commitment can cost over $70 per deer.
"We understand and appreciate people wanting to help deer in these conditions," Ferguson said, "but we want them to know what a commitment it is and that it may not end up helping many deer in the long run anyway."
The best way for deer and other wildlife to survive a severe winter is to have a healthy supply of natural food and cover. Most wildlife can survive relatively short periods of severe weather.
WDFW feeds a few populations of deer, elk and bighorn sheep in winter, but only for specific purposes: to control agricultural crop damage, to temporarily replace winter range lost to wildfires or other natural catastrophes, to keep animals available for capture, for health monitoring, and transplant, and to provide public viewing and learning experiences.