Maine’s deer herd is in trouble, a fact acknowledged last year by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s development of a “Game Plan for Deer.” One of the biggest issues is the lack of quality of winter habitat — both food and cover. Possible remedies exist, but only if applied properly.
Winter is a critical period for deer survival because food is scarce. Many people feed deer at this time of year to help them through this nutritional bottleneck. It’s done with the best intentions, but doesn’t always yield the best results.
In fact, IFW strongly discourages winter feeding for several reasons, described in detail in an IFW position statement, “Supplemental Feeding of White-Tailed Deer During Winter.” Briefly, supplemental feeding may increase predation, deer/vehicle collisions and property damage, and may increase the vulnerability of deer to diseases.
Or it may not. Supplemental feeding is a tool, like a hammer or a firearm, that when used properly can be both safe and effective.
One byproduct of the deer plan was L.D. 1242, An Act To Restore the Deer Herd in Certain Wildlife Management Districts in Maine. In accordance with an amendment to that bill, IFW recently proposed adopting rules to regulate deer feeding. The primary impetus is to minimize potential public safety hazards or detrimental effects on deer, as well as minimizing the risk of chronic wasting disease. Like supplemental feeding itself, this legislation was proposed with the best intentions, but could have detrimental results.
It’s always good to be vigilant, so long as we don’t put too much emphasis on a problem that may occur. A major justification for the proposed rule is the threat of chronic wasting disease. To date it has been found in just over a dozen states (not Maine), though its impact is probably less than recent outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease.
Dr. Grant Woods is a well-known whitetail authority who manages deer and their habitat throughout North America. He points out, “It’s tough to pinpoint a correlation between feeding and CWD. The highest prevalence right now is in parts of the West, where it’s mostly public land, and no feeding is allowed. Meanwhile in Texas, where more deer feeding occurs than anywhere else on the planet, CWD has only recently been detected in the extreme western edge of the state.”
Woods suggests it could be an artifact. “Hunter objectives and management strategies have changed toward allowing more bucks to reach older age classes, which are more susceptible (to CWD). It has probably always been around, but we now have more older deer than anytime in recent history.”
IFW’s proposal also allows the commissioner to prohibit or limit the feeding if it is creating a public safety hazard or having a detrimental effect on the deer. And it should be, if the negatives of a feeding program outweigh the positives. But decision-makers must bear foremost in mind that the overriding goal is to increase deer numbers by carrying more deer through the winter.
Woods points out that Colorado’s state wildlife agency had a huge supplemental feeding program for deer and elk. “There, supplemental feeding has been used appropriately, and has clearly benefitted wildlife.” Therein lies the key.
Bobby Cole is president of Mossy Oak Biologic, one of the largest producers of wildlife seed and wildlife nutrition products. He says: “We’ve got research from Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Minnesota, West Virginia and a bunch of other states that shows if a guy goes into a supplemental feed program and does it right, there’s a lot of benefit to be had.”
Woods agrees. “Clearly supplemental feeding can increase the health of a deer. It can help deer through the winter and take the pressure off native habitat,” he says. “It ultimately comes down to the individual doing the feeding.”
The proposal to restrict or prohibit deer feeding was made with good intentions. It is now up to those in charge to make sure it does not have unintended and potentially disastrous results.
Banning the practice altogether is akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Rather than a ban, more effort could be applied to instruction on doing it right.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: