As the snow deepens in the Adirondacks, deer will soon be moving toward their winter "yarding areas." As you may already know, deer leave their summer feeding range as snow depth approaches 15 inches and begin moving toward their wintering areas. Too many deer, however, will not be moving toward their traditional "yarding" areas but rather to human-populated areas. Some deer have learned to raid backyard bird feeders. Some have learned to wait around, eating the homeowner's lawn trees and shrubs, until they get a free handout.
As a caretaker with a long history of winter deer feeding, I am concerned that "backyard" deer feeders may be doing more harm than good to the deer they are trying to help. Until banned by the Department of Environmental Conservation, the property I caretake for had a 75-plus-year history of winter supplemental deer feeding. I have spent more than 20 years feeding and learning from the wild deer under my feeding charge.
Over the many years of winter feeding, we learned better ways to meet our deer's nutritional requirements. Some of our learning was through trial and error. But much of what we learned was from our close relationship with Syracuse University and the two graduate students who completed their field study on our property. The first study began as a winter survival and spring dispersal study. The second evolved into a nutritional and feeding behavioral study. Both studies were conducted in the 1990s when we were allowed to winter-feed. Because we had the financial resources to feed responsibly, both in quality and quantity of feed, we also had the manpower to feed large numbers of deer every day from December until spring dispersal. Because of our exceptional feeding program and the large number of deer we were feeding, Syracuse University felt this property was a near-perfect laboratory for deer research. For more than four years, we worked closely with Syracuse U. to gain mutually wanted deer information.
A deer feeds in a yard on Mount Pisgah Road in Saranac Lake on Sept. 25, 2007.
(Enterprise file photo — Heather Sackett)
As strange as this next statement may sound, we learned deer can die, will die and do die with a full stomach. You may already know that deer, like cows, are ruminants. They have multiple-chambered stomachs. What you may not know is that deer rely on microorganisms to break down their foods. Because of their microorganisms, deer are browsers, not grazers. Within a given year, from the spring season to the next season and so on, deer will browse on a variety of new seasonal vegetation while still feeding on some older vegetation. This allows the microorganisms within their stomach to adjust slowly from one food source to the newer food source. It may take weeks, however, for the microorganisms to adjust completely to new foods. We soon learned it was best to feed every day once our feeding program began. Feed consistently with the same feeds and in the volumes needed for each deer, every day. I can personally testify that to abruptly change deer foods puts their digestive system into a dilemma, causing problems from bloating to diarrhea.
I have seen deer arriving to our feeding station in late winter that would not survive because their stomach microorganisms could not adjust to our feed quickly enough to prevent starvation. After their deaths, a check of their femur marrow always showed depleted stored fat. Deer rely on stored fats to get them through our long winters when natural browse (or supplemental feeds) is not available. When their stored fat is depleted, there is most often not sufficient time for the deer's microorganisms to adjust to new foods. So deer can, indeed do, die of starvation with a full stomach.
That is my concern with "backyard" deer feeders. They are unknowingly doing harm, out of uninformed kindness, to the deer they are trying to help. The people I am most concerned about are inconsistent with the foods they feed and inconsistent with the frequency they feed. They may feed apples one day, carrots another, bread and lettuces another day and then go days without feeding. These people need to be informed; the deer they are feeding inconsistently and with inconsistent feeds are most likely the deer to die with full stomachs. And in the meantime, deer will be browsing on any tree or ornamental plant they can reach. Backyard feeders draw deer too close to roads and vehicle traffic, domestic dogs and other human-associated hazards.
The DEC presently prohibits winter supplemental feeding of wild deer, by regulation. The regulation does permit, however, summer food plots and winter cutting of brush and trees, with some restrictions. The regulation specifically bans the feeding of any processed feeds. You should know, some processed feeds may contain mammalian parts from animals with chronic wasting disease (CWD). And processed feeds may be a source for spreading CWD. The regulation unfortunately also bans locally grown corn, alfalfa and all other feeds deer may like.
Until there is winter feeding compromise from Albany DEC, backyard feeders should desist. There is a proper way to winter-feed deer, but it should be legal to feed. Make your feeding concerns known to Sen. Betty Little and DEC Director of Division of Fish and Wildlife Pat Riexinger. Let them know, if you could feed deer, you are willing to feed properly, you are willing to be a volunteer information collector, and you are willing to be a watchful monitor of backyard deer health.
Bruce Landon lives in Paul Smiths.