Deer gather near homes searching for food.
SALT LAKE CITY — Although deer in urban areas and in the wild may appear malnourished and struggling to survive during the winter, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources wants to remind the public not to feed deer or other wildlife.
Feeding wildlife is not illegal, but it causes several issues, including public safety, the spread of disease among deer, elk and moose by bringing them together. Feeding big game animals can potentially harm wildlife by introducing foods not in their diets, particularly during winter months.
Over the years, DWR has found whenever someone feeds wildlife those animals will frequently return to that area in search of food. Another concern DWR has is the areas where the wildlife are fed are often near highways and towns — and sometimes even within neighborhoods.
Feeding deer and other wildlife near homes can result in increased traffic accidents and other human/wildlife conflicts as well as attract predators like cougars that follow deer herds. Deer are not predators, but they are still wild animals and can become aggressive.
“Help yourself and the wildlife by allowing them to remain wild, and avoid conflicts by not feeding them,” DWR Big Game Coordinator Covy Jones said. “Feeding deer and other wildlife is usually not a good idea; it sounds like an act of kindness and may sometimes help some animals get through the cold months, but it can often create major problems.”
Diseases like chronic wasting disease can be relatively rare, but it is a transmissible disease that affects the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose.
“Because the disease is so contagious, it is essential that residents do not feed deer or put out food that will attract them,” DWR Veterinarian Ginger Stout said. “This includes putting out corn, hay, dog food or birdseed that deer might easily access. Although it may seem like a beneficial thing to do during the winter months, feeding deer actually accelerates the spread of chronic wasting disease because it causes the deer to congregate.”
Fortunately, diseases are not widespread throughout Utah. The DWR takes any disease very seriously and conducts extensive monitoring each year to stay on top of the disease and its prevalence in the state
“We want to remain as proactive as possible to slow and prevent the spread of this disease,” Stout said. “This is why it is essential that Utahns help us in fighting the spread of this disease by not feeding wildlife or causing them to congregate.”
Introducing the wrong type of food to wildlife can also harm them, especially during the winter. Deer acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach before digestion.
Deer have four-part stomachs, and each stomach chamber gradually breaks down woody, leafy and grassy foods into smaller particles. During the winter, deer primarily feed on sagebrush and other woody plants. Suddenly changing a deer’s diet can easily lead to the deer eating food that it cannot readily digest. In these situations, deer often die from starvation with full stomachs.
When deer congregate to feed, larger deer often push the smaller deer — the fawns — aside, and they often end up receiving less food than they would have received if people had left them alone.
The DWR does occasionally feed deer in specific emergency situations when supplemental feeding is beneficial. When they consider supplemental feeding, biologists carefully analyze whether the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages.
If the agency decides to proceed, wildlife managers will allocate the necessary resources, determine special food mixtures and ensure the feeding takes place in an organized, targeted and strategic way that maximizes the benefits to the deer while minimizing the possible adverse consequences.
The DWR will sometimes feed elk during the winter at the Hardware Wildlife Management Area to help prevent local agricultural damage from the large elk herds. However, those elk are routinely monitored and tested for disease, and the feed is specialized so as not to harm the animals.