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Winter Animal Feeding

TUESDAY, JAN. 27, 2009, 1:06 P.M.

When the temperature drops and snow falls, many people want to feed deer and other wildlife. While the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts winter feeding under certain conditions, the department generally discourages individual citizens from feeding deer, elk and other wildlife species.

The best way to help wild animals survive a severe winter is to maintain high-quality habitat plantings year-round. If animals go into the winter in good condition, most are able to survive persistent deep snow, ice and cold temperatures. Even in well-functioning natural ecosystems, however, some animals succumb during winter months. The winter season has always kept wildlife populations in balance with available habitat.

Another way to help wild animals in winter is to avoid disturbing them. Animals must conserve their energy to survive winter conditions, and human disturbance causes them to move about. Keep dogs confined, and slow down when traveling in motor vehicles through deer and elk habitat.

There are several drawbacks to feeding deer or elk. First, there is the expense of providing proper feed, in sufficient amounts, and for the length of time necessary to be effective. Concentrating deer and elk at a feeder can create problems by making the animals more vulnerable to disease, predation and poaching. If feeding areas draw animals across well-traveled roads, they are more likely to present a safety hazard and be hit by cars. Deer and elk drawn to artificial feed also can damage nearby agricultural areas, trees, or landscaping, especially if the artificial feed supply is not maintained through the winter.

A deer or elk’s digestive system often is not readily able to process many common types of feed. Deer have the most difficult time adjusting to artificial feed. It can take several weeks for them to adjust to the change from natural browse plants to an artificial diet. If they don’t have enough fat reserves to carry them through the adjustment period, they can die of starvation even with a belly full of feed they cannot digest. Once a diet shift has occurred, one white-tailed deer can consume three to four pounds of pelleted feed daily; in just four months, one deer could consume almost 500 pounds of feed.

If—after considering all these issues—an individual chooses to feed, the best artificial deer feed is a pelleted ration that contains approximately 50 percent alfalfa and 50 percent grains. Barley and corn are the recommended grains. Some feed stores carry deer pellets, but a ration prepared for horses is also suitable if it is a “complete” formula. Elk are able to transition fairly quickly to alfalfa hay. Once artificial feeding is begun, it should be continued through March or April until natural forage plants are available.

Wildlife biologists and managers recognize that it is not effective or beneficial to attempt winter feeding throughout the state, nor does WDFW have the resources to do so. However, in special circumstances WDFW does provide carefully managed supplemental feeding programs for certain wildlife populations.

For example, at WDFW’s Oak Creek, L.T. Murray and Wenas wildlife areas in south-central Washington, elk and bighorn sheep are fed throughout the winter to keep them off adjacent private property where they may cause damage or contract diseases from domestic animals. A side benefit of this traditional feeding program is a public wildlife-viewing opportunity. In other instances, wildlife biologists may feed wild animals to draw them in for health monitoring or relocation projects.

In a small number of cases, WDFW may provide supplemental winter feeding when winter range has been lost to wildfires, drought or other natural changes in the landscape. One example is at the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area, where WDFW is winter feeding elk as a short-term measure until habitat improvements and long-term elk herd reduction measures can be instituted.

In other instances, when persistent severe conditions concentrate animals or draw them into private orchards or other cropland where they haven’t posed problems before, WDFW may provide feed. Circumstances such as long-range weather forecasts, severity of snow and temperatures, the animals’ condition, feed site logistics, economics, effectiveness and the level of public concern are considered before WDFW initiates emergency feeding operations.

Madonna Luers is a Public Information Officer for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.


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