When winter arrives, growing concern over whitetail health can lead people to introduce feed. Feeding deer in the winter can be fatal, but can also be successful in certain situations.
With harsh winter weather brewing into winter storms expected to slam parts of the Midwest and east coast soon, deer hunters cannot seem to ignore thinking about how it will effect whitetails. This empathy is shared by many, deer hunters and animal lovers alike. Unfortunately this love can kill. Feeding deer in the winter is generally a bad idea. It is in some cases devastating to the herd, deadly to individuals, illegal in some states, and yet in other states is legal and can sometimes be successful with the right considerations and in the right situations.
How Feeding Deer in the Wintertime is Deadly
It’s called acidosis, and it occurs when ruminants (deer) gain access to large quantities of readily digested carbohydrates, not normally found in their diet this time of year. The large quantities of carbohydrates are usually in the form of corn, you might also see other items like apples, sugar beets, bread, etc. involved in theses cases. So yes, that nice elderly women in your neighborhood that just came to mind, who just spread 3 bags of “Deer Corn” in the back yard, might be killing several deer. Now before you run and break the news that she might be killing her “backyard pets” and shatter her kind heart, you need to learn more. When addressing this situation you need to consider the deer’s diet, biology, which state you are in, regulations, area, habitat, and local food sources.
Whitetails can and will make it through winter just fine on their own. When temperatures plummet and snow falls deer shut themselves down. They restrict movement, rest more, and eat less. Adult deer commonly lose up to 20 % of their body weight through the winter. Fat reserves, adequate thermal cover, and winter browse are all relied upon during the long winter months. When corn or another food source is suddenly introduced into their diet several things can cause a turn for the worse. Deer are ruminants, and rely on microorganisms in their gut to digest food. When a new food source is introduced and the required microorganisms to digest that source are unavailable, deer will die with full stomachs. It takes deer 2-3 weeks to develop these required microorganisms in their stomach after a new food source is introduced. If they do not have these required microorganisms and eat too much, death can follow acidosis within 72 hours. Besides direct death many other negatives and side effects are associated to supplementing whitetails in the wintertime.
Side Effects of Supplementing Whitetails
Predation, disease, population concentration, habitat destruction, and social stress are all serious consequences of feeding whitetails in the winter. When deer are more concentrated than normal as a result of a large feeding site they can become easy targets to predators. Depending on the state coyotes, bobcats, bears, and wolves can and will take advantage of the increased concentration. More deer also means increased browse pressure on the habitat. Woody browse including blackberry, black raspberry, saplings, fallen tree buds and branches are all at risk from over-browsing during this time of year. Another result of feeding whitetails is more direct nose-to-nose contact and increased social stress. Deer are social, but dense populations in small areas increases stress, which every human knows can cause major problems. Diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a growing problem for some states including Wisconsin. In these states baiting is illegal or extremely restricted to decrease the chance for contact among infected and healthy deer populations.
When is it Okay?
Any wildlife department or state agency will tell you it is generally a very bad idea or illegal depending on the state, and they are all correct. The costs associated with feeding whitetails in the winter, as described above, far outweigh the benefits. With that said, in some situations and areas you can do it successfully, but it is not recommended without extensive knowledge.
Post season trail camera surveys are ran by serious deer hunters and managers this time of year. This is a good intention to gauge the size and health of a deer herd while obtaining valuable demographics after the hunting season. While it might be a great intention, running a survey should only be ran with all things considered to eliminate negative costs.
Right after hunting season ends game cameras and bait sites go up across properties in many states where legal. In big Ag country deer are accustomed to feeding on carbohydrates. From standing corn in October and November, until the last piece on the ground is gone in the late December or January, deer will be out in Ag fields feeding. Their stomachs are accustomed to this diet, they have the required microorganisms to readily digest the bait placed on the ground for the survey. If a standing corn field is present than deer will have the required microbes throughout the winter. If all surrounding corn fields are cut, then depending on deer population numbers the corn will likely dry up in January. In addition a survey typically lasts 3 weeks (21-24 days). When starting a survey in the winter a deer manager should always start a small amount of corn or bait, to be introduced during the first 2 weeks to eliminate chances of over feeding or acidosis. When the survey is over the manager should decrease the amount of corn on the site slowly over the course of two-three weeks.
Again feeding deer in the winter can be done successfully when considering whether or not they are accustomed to the food source and when you introduce it very slowly. Bearing this in mind, a deer and property manager can successfully run a post-season trail camera survey without problems, but this is about as legit of an excuse you can come up with to validate supplementing deer in the winter.
Feeding whitetails in the wintertime to “help them out” can result in killing them with love. It’s a bad idea but it does happen. Our best chance at stopping concerned land owners and potential feeders in areas where feeding should not occur is through education. Do your part to share and extend this knowledge and you might just save a few deer in the process.
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