Providing supplemental feed to deer in the winter is controversial and illegal in some states, but other states encourage and even help fund it. Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of winter feeding.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has often been opposed to recreational deer feeding. With the increased risk of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other disease transmissions, there have been discussions about banning it. The winter of 2014 was very difficult for the deer of northern Minnesota. Deep snow and cold temperatures created conditions in which predators had a field day with stressed deer. In many cases ,wolves moved into certain areas and slaughtered far more deer than they could ever eat. Deep snow made finding food extremely difficult and many deer were near starvation by February and March.
Despite their history of opposition to the practice, the Minnesota DNR mobilized volunteers across the northern half of the state to distribute corn to stressed deer herds.
Near my home there was a 20-acre cornfield that did not get harvested before the snow came. There were 60 to 70 deer feeding in that cornfield every night. I had a discussion with a DNR officer about recreational deer feeding about that time. He felt strongly that recreational deer feeding concentrated the deer into areas where they could more likely transmit diseases. My response was this: “There are 70 deer feeding in this cornfield; they are nibbling on the same branches, eating fecal matter, and chewing on the same corncobs. Wouldn’t it be better to have those deer spread out into a dozen smaller recreational feeding sites at the homes of the adjacent landowners rather than have them all bunched up in one place? Wouldn’t that cause a reduction in potential transmission of diseases rather than an increase?” Neither one of us really have a definitive answer to that question.
These are just a couple examples of the controversy that surrounds recreational feeding of deer. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons.
Acclimation to humans
Opponents of deer feeding feel that providing handouts for deer can make them more vulnerable to negative human influences. In some cases this may be true, and there are specific instances in which deer feeding in the wrong areas has caused significant increases in roadkills. Deer feeding during hunting season can concentrate deer into areas where they are more vulnerable to hunters. But ask anyone who has hunted for deer over bait in states where baiting is legal and they will tell you that putting deer in a position where it’s easier to shoot them is a lot easier said than done.
Deer quickly learn when they are being hunted and will go nocturnal. Many states allow baiting of deer but very few mature bucks are killed atop bait piles. The human intrusion associated with putting the bait in place is simply more than a mature buck will tolerate. Even younger deer and does quickly learn that feeding under the cover of darkness is their best survival strategy.