Feeding Wild Deer

By John Buck

When you see deer in your yard or on your property at this time of year, it's easy to be concerned that they have enough to eat. As the snow gets deeper and the temperatures fall, the Department of Fish and Wildlife becomes very concerned that some people, with all good intentions, feed wild deer. Artificially feeding deer has many negative implications for the animal.

Deer that are artificially fed lose their natural wildness and become use to human habitats. This usually results in the deer becoming a nuisance and destroying your gardens and shrubbery. Quite often, people become somewhat possessive of "their" deer. This can lead to conflicts when the Department must make decisions about over-population.

Artificial feeding is expensive and if begun, must be maintained. A deer's digestive system is extremely sensitive to sudden changes in diet. If you choose to feed deer, you should use commercially blended foods especially for deer and you must provide food for the entire four-month wintering period. This will generally cost about $55 per deer. But, because one deer always leads to many more, you can potentially spend hundreds of dollars each month on commercial feed.

Never feed deer bread or other food humans eat. Eating this type of food can be very harmful to deer. Additionally, bread, corn and table foods attract other animals to the feeding site. Raccoons and skunks are both carriers of rabies, and domestic dogs can attack deer.

Competition for food around artificial feeding sites can be fierce. The smallest and weakest deer, usually fawns, get pushed to the end of the feeding line. Wild deer that are dispersed in their habitat rarely exhibit this behavior, allowing the younger deer an opportunity to eat.

Deer concentrated at feeding sites are more likely to contract diseases such as tuberculosis, salmonella, and brucellosis. Because of the prevalence of saliva and nose-to-nose contact at these locations, these deadly diseases are easily passed from one deer to another.

As deer concentrate around artificial feeding sites, they become increasingly vulnerable to attack by domestic dogs. Their loss of wildness aids in this vulnerability. Wild predators, such as coyotes, are often drawn to the feedings sites, as well.

Deer depend on the crowns of mature conifers such as hemlock, spruce, fir, pine, and cedar for survival through the winter season. The loss of adequate wintering habitat is the most serious threat to Vermont's deer population. Working with your local planning commission and a professional forester to identify and manage the forests for quality wintering habitat are important steps to protect this critical habitat. Efforts by people like you to protect this habitat from development and over-logging will be far more beneficial to deer than an artificial feeding venture.

Durwood Allen, author of Our Wildlife Legacy says, "The deer is a browsing animal. Its digestive tract is built to handle a coarse diet of leaves, twigs, and buds. A period of fall feeding on beechnuts and acorns is ideal for sending deer into winter in good condition. The winter diet is mainly tips of hardwoods and foliage of hemlock, fir and cedar. The path of artificial feeding is a dangerous blind alley."

Instead of feeding deer, wildlife biologists with the Department of Fish and Wildlife can help landowners plan a habitat conservation strategy. If you would like to learn more about deer habitat conservation, please contact any of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife regional offices listed below.

Barre - - - - (802) 476-0199
Essex - - - - (802) 878-1564
St. Johnsbury - - - - (802) 751-0100
Springfield - - - - (802) 885-8855
Pittsford - - - - (802) 483-2172

John Buck is a wildlife biologist with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

Article posted for the week of January 11, 1999.