ELGIN, Ore. – Four deer suddenly appeared out of the thick evergreens bordering the campground and moseyed along the campground road.
It was fun watching them browse, prance and play at the edge of the campsites at Minam State Park between La Grande and Enterprise.
We were setting up camp the day before launching on the Grande Ronde River.
While the four critters entertained us, what we didn’t see was another deer making a slow end-around and sneaking behind us. The deer slipped past and walked up to our picnic table. In a second, it grabbed a bag of pita bread and ran toward the woods.
Pita bread? How the heck did a wild critter like a deer develop a taste for stuff in plastic bags?
Well, these deer have been conditioned with human food for years. Instead of migrating to the high country for natural food, they migrate to campgrounds. It’s turning into a learned behavior passed on to generations.
One member of our party started yelling and chasing the pocket-bread thief. Heck, the pita bread was key to some of the meals on our river trip.
The deer dropped it just before going into the timber.
It didn’t end there. Each of the deer would dart toward the table looking for any morsel they could find. They were like yellow jackets buzzing around a piece of watermelon.
I’ve dealt with bears, skunks and raccoons at campsites, but not marauding deer that were aggressive.
Several areas in the Northwest are known for tame deer in campgrounds. The campground at Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon has deer that often mingle with campers. Photos of little kids feeding snacks to deer are common.
Deer have learned to open coolers, just like bears. I’ve read where deer have also learned how to roll watermelons off picnic tables to smash them on the ground and enjoy the sweet contents.
It’s fun to watch wildlife, and it’s neat to get such great photo opportunities of critters coming through camp.
But deer can be more dangerous than you think. As we shooed one deer away, it stopped and turned its hind legs in our direction. That was a clear sign the deer meant business. Any approach closer and sharp hooves would be flying in all directions.
An adult deer snorted at us as we shooed a young one away.
As we enjoyed the evening in camp, we watched the band of calculating deer visit each campsite as new, unsuspecting campers arrived.
Not to be the old, grumpy grandpa, but well-intentioned campers who feed deer don’t realize how dangerous it can be if the animal is startled and starts kicking.
Campground snacks with all of their partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, high fructose corn syrup, polysorbate 60, and other man-made ingredients can’t be good for an animal whose digestion is attuned to natural vegetation.
Young deer that are used to getting handouts don’t learn to fend for themselves. They are also lured to heavy traffic areas, where they can be hit by a car.
Campgrounds where deer congregate to get camping food also can lure in predators like cougars. Fawns that get used to the easy life at campground are not as wary of their surroundings and become easier prey.
Deer habituated to campgrounds tend to cause more conflicts with family pets.
If deer are getting handouts, you can bet bears and other less camp-friendly animals will figure out there’s an easy food source.
It’s ironic that when we jumped into the rafts and headed downstream 15 miles, we didn’t see deer frequenting any of the river campsites.
Seasoned river runners know it’s wrong to feed wildlife. They also keep extremely clean camps that don’t tend to lure them in.
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