Feeding that cute deer fawn in your yard may seem helpful, but the Idaho Department of Fish and Game says well-intentioned people often feed deer, elk and other wildlife without realizing the problems it can create. 

“Although people have good intentions and only want to help, feeding can lead to unforeseen problems and can actually do more harm than good,” said Tempe Regan, a wildlife biologist based in Salmon. “For one, it often begins with just a few animals, but their numbers can quickly grow and become overwhelming.”

According to the department, deer and elk receiving supplemental feed often quickly congregate in unnaturally high numbers in small areas, which increases the chances of diseases spreading among the population. Malnourished animals and crowding stress create conditions ideal for serious disease outbreaks, which is a serious concern to livestock producers and wildlife managers alike.

In addition, deer and elk digestive systems are set up to digest food differently throughout the year. Changing from natural to supplemental high-quality feed can result in digestive problems, bloat and potentially death, especially in younger animals.

Damage to vegetation near feed sites is another concern. Trees and shrubs, especially aspen and willow, can be heavily damaged and take decades to recover, if they do at all.

“Of course, the same damage can occur to ornamental plants and gardens where big game are fed near homes,” Regan said. “And not just on your property, but on your neighbor’s, too.”

Some well-intentioned people believe that if they supply a food source, it will prevent the animals from damaging their ornamental plants.

“Quite the opposite,” Regan said. “Feeding usually just encourages them to stick around longer and results in greater damage.” 

More importantly, feeding big game near homes is discouraged, as they may lose their fear of humans, which can lead to injuries and sometimes death to the animal, pets and even injury to humans.

“While they may look harmless, people need to realize that deer are wild animals and can be unpredictable,” Regan said. 

Feeding big game can also attract animals that homeowners don’t want around. Mountain lions are common in the forests of Idaho, and are sometimes attracted to city’s confines where deer can find refuge and often congregate where they are fed.

Additionally, wildlife-vehicle collisions are also common in areas where animals gather. Accidently hitting a 150- to 200-pound deer or a much larger elk can cause serious personal injury, not to mention vehicle damage and injury or death to the animal, Fish and Game noted.

Fish and Game is asking the public not to feed deer and elk this winter, and stated that well-meaning people can actually help by not feeding them. 

“Fortunately, once people learn about the negative impacts that occur when deer and elk are fed, most stop doing it,” Regan said.

The department looks to natural forage to sustain big game populations. But when emergency conditions exist, winter feeding becomes an option. Three main conditions that can trigger winter feeding are to prevent damage to stored agricultural crops such as haystacks, public safety concerns such as elk congregating near a busy highway, and excessively harsh winter conditions where a high percentage of the adult females would be expected to die.

The agency’s policy and actions on whether to feed are complicated and have evolved through decades of experience with winter feeding.  For more, visit Fish and Game’s Winter Feeding webpage at idfg.idaho.gov/conservation/winter-feeding.

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