December 11, 2023

Maine Proposes to “Restrict” Deer Feeding – But For What Reasons?

According to an article written for the Bangor Daily News by George Smith, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) is proposing a ban or some level of restricting the supplemental winter feeding of deer by citizens. Smith gives the reasons why MDIFW wants to stop deer feeding:

a) concentrating deer at greater than natural densities;
b) providing food that is harmful or of low nutritional value;
c) increasing direct and indirect contact among individual animals;
d) increasing deer habituation to humans and detracting from wild behavior and survival responses;
e) increasing vulnerability to predation;
f) increasing vulnerability to collisions with vehicles or other mortality risks;
g) increasing the likelihood of disease transmission within and among individual animals and maintaining endemic disease reservoirs;
h) causing significant habitat damage in and adjacent to feeding sites.

Are there legitimate reasons to stop people from feeding deer? Of course there are. Can some or all of those reasons be handled in a better way than banning the activity? I think so. Is feeding deer actually not a benefit to the deer?

According to Smith’s article, the major reason given in the proposal to restrict deer feeding is: “The Department discourages the supplemental feeding of deer and other wildlife because it is not beneficial in most situations.” Two quick issues here. One, why is this proposal mentioning “other wildlife”? Is this proposal about feeding deer or all wildlife in general. Lumping it all together gives one the feeling that the “king” is being a turd and doesn’t want the subjects playing with his wildlife. Two, I don’t have a copy of the proposal and I can’t seem to locate it on the MDIFW website nor directions on how to leave comments and information about supplemental deer feeding.

The MDIFW states that supplemental feeding of deer is not beneficial but it doesn’t say it’s harmful, at least not directly. Let’s consider first the grocery list above. MDIFW doesn’t want us feeding deer because:

1.) “concentrating deer at greater than natural densities” Um, ok. Perhaps this needs a bit more explanation. The overwhelming majority of feeding that occurs is in winter. In winter deer “yard up” in far greater numbers than is found the remainder of the year. To what degree of numbers of deer congregating at a feeding spot is considered above “natural densities”?

Deer come to feeding locations in the state – by the way in the grand scheme of things a tiny percentage – from their normal winter locations. Let’s look at this realistically for a moment. Deer sometimes travel several miles to their favorite yarding location. Most people who do feed, do so because they know that deer are yarding up not too far away from them. In addition, although I doubt anyone at MDIFW will admit it, deer are choosing to spend winters in smaller yards, in smaller numbers outside of “traditional” deer wintering areas. I’ve witnessed this often. Circumstances have forced this.

Unless MDIFW can show that deer coming to a feeding location are being bussed in, isn’t it reasonable to conclude there will be no more unnatural densities than normally occur in their winter yards?

2.) “providing food that is harmful or of low nutritional value” – A legitimate concern and one that can be easily handled through education and ensuring that all establishments selling supplemental feed for deer are selling only the kinds approved by the MDIFW.

3.) “increasing direct and indirect contact among individual animals” – Another legitimate consideration. I am assuming the thought process here has to be concerning spreading of disease. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is of foremost concern and in those states where CWD is prevalent, efforts are in place and underway to do all that can be done about spreading the disease further. The following map shows where CWD can be found in North America.

As you can see from the map, the nearest location where any CWD has been detected is in Oneida County in central New York. That’s doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can to limit the chances of spreading disease. Maine, with their current restrictions, have done a good job keeping ahead of the spread of CWD.

With a bit more education, those choosing to feed can utilize methods and equipment that can help in reducing the risk of spreading disease.

4.) “increasing deer habituation to humans and detracting from wild behavior and survival responses” – I believe this to be a subject that is too subjective of which neither side can offer much scientific evidence to support. This kind of talk reminds me too much of the I-hate-man, animals-were-here-first mantra we hear constantly from animal rights people.

I think the bottom line here is that there has always been a certain degree of deer feeding that has occurred for years, mostly out of care and concern. In recent years feeding has increased more as people learn that the deer are suffering and what results from severe winters. It was told to me one time by a MDIFW biologist that what little feeding is going on in the grand scheme of things, is miniscule and leads to much ado about nothing.

5.) “increasing vulnerability to predation” – Seriously? First of all, deer have learned to get the hell out of deer yards in winter because they are a target. Moving into somebody’s backyard, which may provide more protection for them from predators is a result of circumstances. I have read arguments that deer can more easily be attacked and killed by domestic dogs this way. If this is actually true, let’s all take a look at the data that supports that claim.

6.) “increasing vulnerability to collisions with vehicles or other mortality risks” – Another legitimate concern. People should not be setting up feed stations where deer have to cross a very busy highway to get to it. That’s stupid and represents selfish greed on the part of the people. In cases such as this, MDIFW should set specific guidelines and be able to prohibit feeding locations that fall within those guidelines.

7.) “increasing the likelihood of disease transmission within and among individual animals and maintaining endemic disease reservoirs” – I’ve mostly covered this. MDIFW should assess each disease with supplemental feeding and be able to make adjustments accordingly.

8.) “causing significant habitat damage in and adjacent to feeding sites” – Again I think this needs to be on a case by case basis. How many deer are going to cause how much damage?

The reasons given above, the majority can be handled without all out bans on feeding. Reasonable restrictions are necessary in cases where disease is present and public safety is a concern.

I would like to take a moment and address the comment that supplemental feeding of deer is “not beneficial in most situations.” In addition to the list of concerns addressed above, there certainly exists evidence that might disprove that supplemental feeding of deer is not beneficial.

Most studies that I have found, read and researched concerning supplemental feeding of deer in the winter time, addresses mostly the issues of the spreading of diseases, or in some cases with carefully orchestrated emergency supplemental feeding programs. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan a study was done on the effects of supplemental feeding of deer within a 252-hectare enclosure (about 625 acres) for five years. The results of that study might be interesting to some.

During the length of the study, the whitetail deer population rose from 23 to 159. Scientists had to compensate for differences in reproduction, growth, nutrition, etc. changes due to the increase in deer densities. Most of the negative changes for the deer, came as the result of increased numbers, i.e. competition for food and habitat, ability to reproduce, etc.

Interesting enough with the consistent supplemental feeding, “better nutrition accelerated deer body growth and shortened the time to physical maturity. Except for yearling bucks, antler development improved and casting dates were delayed. In utero productivity of yearling does doubled with supplemental feeding and increased by 50% among 2.5-year-olds and 21% for older does.”

As the herd grew, reproduction rates dropped and “A marked improvement in physiological parameters after the herd was drastically reduced suggested that the aberrations observed under peak populations were density dependent.”

MDIFW could conceive a legitimate reason to restrict or ban supplemental deer feeding in areas where Maine has too dense a deer population. And that is in the town of……..?

But the interesting conclusion to this study is here.

We conclude that when properly conducted, supplemental feeding provides a feasible method of maintaining a reasonably large deer herd in good physical condition with minimal damage to the range. (emphasis added)

I believe I have presented evidence and made suggestions that should help some people better understand the ups and downs of winter time supplemental deer feeding. However there is one very important issue here that I think perhaps the MDIFW and the Maine Legislature are overlooking.

There is nothing any more important than for Maine residents to believe they have ownership in the care of our deer herd and wildlife in general. In my years of doing this work, nationwide the number one complaint I get from sportsmen is that they feel shut out of participating in fish and game issues and management. As government agencies grew, along with that growth was a movement away from working with the people and more of an oligarchical, near dictatorial approach to protecting the wildlife and the people’s access to it for the “king”.

I think I have presented enough evidence to question whether winter time feeding of deer is a bad thing and perhaps have suggested that in fact, if done the right way, could be helpful to the deer. MDIFW stated that in most cases feeding deer wasn’t beneficial but I think haven’t presented a good enough case to convince the Maine people that feed them it’s all that bad either.

I suggest that MDIFW continue it’s education process and follow some or all of the suggestions I have given and let the people remain involved. They feel good about it and believe they are doing their part to help. Short of hard scientific evidence, where I think in Maine’s case doesn’t exist, let the feeding continue.