Wednesday, February 1, 2023

DEC: Consequences of Feeding Deer in Winter

Deer in winter

Now that white-tailed deer hunting seasons have ended throughout most of New York State, it may be tempting to begin feeding deer to “help” them through the winter. However, feeding deer during the winter or other times of the year is unnecessary, prohibited in New York, and can have very negative consequences for deer, your neighbors, and surrounding wildlife habitat.

During the winter, deer mainly rely on woody vegetation (known as woody browse) for their nutritional needs. The digestive enzymes in a deer’s stomach change in the winter to better digest this browse. If deer are provided with unnatural food sources such as corn or hay after this change in diet has occurred, it can result in deer becoming ill or even dying. Deer will eat the unnatural food source, but can develop acidosis (grain overload disease) or enterotoxemia (Clostridium overgrowth) disease because they can’t digest the food properly. Both diseases can result in the rapid illness and death of deer even though their stomachs are full.

Deer also gather around food sources in winter which can increase the risk of spreading disease. For example, if a deer infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) visits an artificial deer feeding site it will shed CWD prions (protein) in its saliva directly on the food which can infect other deer that feed there. Deer gathering at these sites can also increase the risk for deer-vehicle collisions and deer-related damage to landscape plantings, orchards, and tree farms.

Habitat improvement, especially the creation of shrubland and young forest habitat, is a good way to help deer and other wildlife so they have food to eat all year. For a list of tree and shrub species that deer prefer to eat in winter that you can promote on your property, visit DEC’s winter deer foods page.

Photo at top: Deer in winter. Photo by John Lehmann. Photo courtesy of the NYS DEC.

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Information attributed to NYSDEC is taken from press releases and news announcements from New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation.

14 Responses

  1. David Pietkiewicz says:

    Don’t really agree with NYSDEC Policy here. Proper supplemental feeding (not only in the Winter) works very well in all the many, many States that allow it. However, New York just loves and promotes “prohibitions”.

  2. John Jongen says:

    David since you are obviously the scientist with data on the ‘proper’ feeding of deer, ‘in many, many States’, can you share your formula with us readers?

  3. Paul says:

    Deer congregate in ‘yards’ in the Adirondacks like they have for millennia. So in the northern zone I’m not sure the 3rd point is accurate. The other 2 points are well taken but they could be managed by feeding deer all year till they naturally leave the yards and their gut microbes adjust to their diets. Places like the Adirondack League Club ran successfully deer feeding programs for decades (with scientific studies to be sure, DEC may have even been involved?) prior to the NYS ban on deer feeding.

  4. Paul says:

    This according to wildlife biologists at SUNY ESF

    “ There is no direct evidence to support the contention that the spread of disease or rate of depredation is higher in free-ranging deer herds associated with winter feeding programs. Remember, deer are already highly concentrated in wintering areas as a result of their own natural behavior patterns.”

    At this site. They basically say ignore our science since DEC has banned the practice..

  5. Boreas says:

    I don’t understand supplemental feeding for a species that, if anything, is overpopulating the state. If we do not have predators pushing and taking deer NATURALLY year-round, should we be feeding them just to shoot them and run them over with cars?

    Starvation and disease are about the only NATURAL controls on the present deer herd. Take away starvation and what is left? I know it sounds crass, but that is how nature works. Many populated areas (hamlets, villages) are overrun with deer year-round. They can’t be hunted easily because of proximity to dwellings, and they can do incredible damage to landscaping and forest understory when the population swells. Feeding them only makes the problem worse. Natural stresses like food, population, predation, etc. keep herds healthy and strong. Hunting and road-kill often take too many strong and healthy individuals.

    The only type of food deer get from me on my postage stamp of property is when I choose the wrong species to plant, or do not protect them in time. To get most things to grow, my plants need to be in cages until they tower over the deer. I like to plant mast and fruit species that help feed wildlife – including deer – but they don’t stand a chance in my vicinity without cages of some sort until they are well-established and beyond the reach of these damaging browsers.

  6. Mitch Edelstein says:

    This New Yorker had an article about the problem of deer on Staten Island. The article is called: Deer Wars and Death Threats

  7. Dan says:

    Deer feeding/baiting is out of hand by hunters and non-hunters alike. Corn – which is often the food of choice for humans to offer – is the worst thing you can feed deer. They get barely any nutritional value from it (or likely any store-bought feed) and often burn more calories going to and from where it is being distributed than they consume. That my not be as much of a factor in a mild winter such as this, but it can be deadly for them, especially in the North Country. DEC is correct when they mention digestive enzymes in a deer’s stomach, and often deer are found dead from starvation with stomachs full of corn as it takes their digestive system weeks to adjust to a new food source. Leave them be.

  8. JBF says:

    Wildlife food plots are a form of supplemental feeding that seems to be acceptable in every state including New York. Some food plots, like brassica, extend into the winter and deer will paw through the snow to get them.
    Supplemental feeding of the large,round bales of soybeans and alfalfa, common in the North Country, provide a counter to the argument that the deer will die because of the quick change in diet. The deer begin feeding on the bales well before starvation mode and the bacteria in the rumen is well adapted to the change in diet. DEC is correct when talking about feeding bales to starving deer but not so much when feeding is part of a management program. DEC’s management program seems based 100% around the number of deer killed in each area.
    With respect to CCD, it’s there in the deer yards. Might be somewhat worse in feeding areas but hard facts are not there. Should we ban bird feeders too. They may be a cause of bird flu. Perhaps we have too many birds.
    Finally, I love deer and believe they are one of natures greatest gifts. And I think it is inhumane to let them die when active wildlife management can reduce their suffering and death from malnutrician.

  9. Charlie Stehlin says:

    David Pietkiewicz says: “Don’t really agree with NYSDEC Policy here. Proper supplemental feeding (not only in the Winter) works very well in all the many, many States that allow it. However, New York just loves and promotes “prohibitions”.

    We are in the midst of an ‘anti-science’ revolution stirred-up by millionaire politicians who have an agenda and who can give two hoots about even general truths or natural laws……….. So who do we believe? And why would the DEC lie?

  10. Mike says:

    When you compare other states like Idaho that successfully manage deer and elk by handling them like livestock, NY always has done a horrible job. NY has CWD as they chronically waste tax money on rules, laws, regulations that have poor results. These animals are no longer wild anyway need proper management.

  11. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “NY always has done a horrible job”

    Not always! NY was once known the world over as the role model in their preservation of archives, in agricultural affairs, education, and even the DEC once had the very best reputation, especially compared to other states; and if they lost that reputation it would be due to just the way things are going everywhere else…..lack of real statesmen, leaders with soul. This is what happens when we put economics ahead of all things else……………….

  12. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “NY has CWD as they chronically waste tax money on rules, laws, regulations that have poor results.”

    Sure, lots of tax dollars are wasted, but where is this not so? New York puts their money in the right places where their tax dollars are concerned Mike. We have some very wonderful State parks thanks to tax dollars. That money goes towards education, public services, public safety….. We need laws! Or would you prefer a lawless society? We need regulations too else there’d be a free-for-all on whatever is left of our ecosystems. Even with regulations we’re having a free-for-all! Which poor results are you talking about regards regulations.

  13. Tre Spraught says:

    If feeding corn will reduce the deer herd, I might start doing so. Problem is I would like to reduce acres of corn production too. Bit of a catch-22.

  14. JT says:

    My son gave me an early Christmas present last year. Someone had hit a button buck and did not want it so he through it into his hatchback and brought it home. He left me with the unpleasant task of field dressing it. The force of the hit caused the stomach contents to be distributed through the entire body cavity and this deer was loaded with corn. It could be it was feeding in the fields. Some farmers cut them very late, or someone may be feeding them.
    I am not a big supporter of feeding deer corn in the winter, but I do feed them by cutting fire wood and leaving the branches on the ground. They hear the chain saw and right after I leave they get in there to eat all the buds.

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