February 28, 2020

Is What We Are Being Told About Habitat Really True?

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One has to wonder. I was reading this morning about issues with feeding whitetail deer in Maine. George Smith, outdoor writer, shares with his readers that: “A SAM [Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine] survey of our members in 2018 revealed that 26% had fed deer sometime during the previous 3 winters. That equates to about 2,000 feeding sites, just among SAM members!” This information, as I understand it, does not include data from food plots, i.e. those places around where people plant crops specifically to feed deer.

So, let’s say there are about 2,000 feeding sites across Maine each winter season. We don’t know the location of all these feeding stations and/or the ones that aren’t included in the SAM survey report. (Is it reasonable to think that there are more deer feeding sites from people who are NOT members of SAM?) Consider that there is a possibility that if there are feeding stations near each other, some feed lots are sharing the feeding of the same deer.

Regardless, can you guess what the average number of deer that are being fed per feed site? If I were to take a wild guess, I’ve seen some where at peak feeding time, it appears as many as 100 deer are chowing down. Back yard feed sites, might get around a dozen, maybe more and maybe less.

For argument sake, let’s say each of the 2,000 + deer feeding sites nourishes 30 deer (I think that might be conservative so bear with me). That would mean, excluding some deer that might move between two or more feeding sites, perhaps 60,000 deer are receiving supplemental nourishment they wouldn’t get if they were on their own.

If the 60,000+ deer receiving supplemental nourishment (and once again, this does not include summer food plots and those feed stations that SAM isn’t aware of) comprise at least one quarter, and perhaps one half, of the statewide deer population, and not having any scientific data on geographic locations, what is this activity doing to the survival and promotion of healthier deer throughout the state?

We are repeatedly told that during the harshest parts of the winter months, deer browse on stuff that is of little or no value as far as nutrition goes. The fiber ingested more or less fills an empty stomach. So, ask yourself whether or not the deer that are being fed are better nourished. If so, what does that mean for the long term for deer?

If you’ve ever watched deer interact at a feed station, you will notice that the bigger deer bully the smaller deer, such that the smaller, and less aggressive deer, get what’s left over. Biologists and others have stated that feed plots aren’t “fair” because of this natural dynamic. Shouldn’t we consider that whatever “scraps” the runts get is certainly more than they would get without food sites?

Have you ever been to a deer wintering area and observed the realities taking place there? One quite obvious dynamic is the neat trimming that takes place of the bows of trees in the lowest parts of the canopy. As winter progresses and the snow level rises, so too does the trim line at the lower parts of the trees. When the trees have all been trimmed that can more or less easily be reached, deer begin to stand up on the hind legs in order to reach the tree bows. This means the bigger (taller) deer get food and the runts don’t. According to the misguided thinking of some, this natural event wouldn’t be “fair” either.

What does happen then with a quarter, or more, of the total deer population in Maine getting “unnatural” food? Do these deer receive the necessary energy to help them survive those long harsh winters better? If so, to what extent is the increased survival affecting the mortality rate of the deer herd? Does this increased nutrition cause the fawn survival rate to go up? If so, how much? Is it skewing natural dynamics? Does this event send those biological triggers, often conveniently talked up by animal rights groups and predator advocates, that “cause” deer to produce more as part of their reproductive rates?

There are many things to be considered with this extent of deer feeding. Probably we are left with more questions than answer. However, when we consider what we are being told about habitat and deer mortality rates etc., we might be looking at two different consequences of deer feeding. One consequence might be that we are seeing more deer added each year to the total deer population, or perhaps at least in those areas where deer feeding is more concentrated. Are we? Have we received any word from the biologists in charge of deer management that the population is actually growing? Maybe word from observations from those who feed deer can tell us if they are feeding more deer each year. I would think they ought to know. Don’t they count them? Does the harvest data indicate that the population of deer might be going up?

If none of this is actually happening, then it would be sensible to ask just what the condition of the deer herd would be without any supplemental feeding.

If you think about all these things, then one has to wonder if law makers and game managers are making too big a deal out of feeding deer. Is it really hurting in any way? Yes, there are concerns over spreading of disease, but is there an equitable concern for disease and virus spread throughout the landscape of all wildlife? If Chronic Wasting Disease was found in Maine, I’m positive the state would immediately implement all necessary actions to curb the spread. Supplemental feeding isn’t going to cause CWD, but it might contribute to spreading the disease.

We should probably ask ourselves how significant changes in feed and habitat, quality and quantity, are to the management of our wildlife. Is it like we are being told?

I think supplemental feeding of at least one quarter of the total deer herd is significant. I also believe this activity has contributed to the survival and reproduction of more deer. With that said, what would the state of the deer herd be today without the years of supplemental feeding?