Wildlife experts have long discouraged deer feeding, saying it makes the animals more vulnerable to disease, predators and fatal accidents. But their concerns have grown with the spread of chronic wasting disease
MILAN, N.H. As a group of white-tailed deer hesitates at the edge of the woods, logger Rick Gagne strides across his yard with a bucket of molasses-sweetened grain calling, "Come on! Come on and eat!"
Gagne tosses some feed onto the snow and, one by one, the does and fawns venture into the open to grab a few mouthfuls. Wary of strangers, they stay only a minute or two before running back into the woods, white tails flashing.
So many people feed deer in far northern New Hampshire during winter that wildlife biologists say all deer get some commercial feed in their diets.
"You'll get one person who starts feeding, another sees it, and it's like a chain reaction," said Will Staats, state wildlife biologist for Coos County.
Wildlife experts have long discouraged feeding, saying it makes the deer more vulnerable to disease, predators and fatal accidents with vehicles. But their concerns have grown with the spread of chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness similar to mad cow disease that strikes deer, elk and moose.
Scientists aren't sure exactly how the disease spreads, but saliva, urine, feces, and deer entrails left by hunters are top suspects.
When deer eat from a pile of grain or at a feeder, "one animal picks up a mouthful and half of it falls out of the side of its mouth, and the next deer picks up grain with saliva all over it," making it a prime way to spread infection, said Matt Tarr, a wildlife biologist and forester at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension.
As the deer disperse in spring, crossing paths with other groups returning to their summer territories, they can spread the disease further.
Chronic wasting disease, already a serious problem in several western states and two Canadian provinces, began moving east in 2002, when it was identified in Wisconsin. Since then it has been found in captive and wild deer in upstate New York, and both New York and Vermont have outlawed deer feeding.
Maine and New Hampshire haven't banned feeding, but they have followed the lead of states, including Texas, by banning shipments of deer and elk from other states to farming operations like the one Gagne runs with 14 red deer. Like most states, Vermont has a limited ban focused on states where the disease has been found.
Maine now is proposing to allow imports from states with strict screening programs.
Although there is no evidence chronic wasting disease can be transmitted to humans, sales of hunting licenses have dropped sharply in areas where it has been found, hurting tourism, Tarr said. In New Hampshire, where the Fish and Game Department is funded almost entirely through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, the disease could wreak havoc on the agency's wildlife management and conservation programs.
"It would be an absolute shame to have that situation happen here in New Hampshire, and it's my opinion that supplemental feeding is the fastest way to get that disease here," Tarr said.
Deer feeding has been blamed for the rapid spread of other diseases as well, including demodectic mange -- in which mites cause deer to lose their protective winter coats -- and bovine tuberculosis.
On the other hand, a special deer feeder invented by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and licensed to the American Lyme Disease Foundation reduces the population of disease-carrying deer ticks by forcing deer to rub their heads and necks against rollers saturated with pesticide as they eat.
Diseases aside, there are other reasons to discourage deer feeding, Staats and other biologists say. One is that deer sometimes spend more energy getting to feed sites than they get from the food, endangering the survival of those with the least body fat: fawns.
Another is loss of critical winter habitat.
Deer survive by building up their fat stores in fall, then conserving energy in winter. They need the shelter provided by mature spruce, balsam fir and hemlock forests, where the evergreen needles shelter them and keep the snow cover underneath shallow enough that they can move about and browse.
Once, hundreds of deer would spread out across 14,000 acres of softwood forest in the Androscoggin River valley each winter. Now they congregate at the forest's edge near feeding sites, said Staats, who works for Fish and Game.
Tarr did research several years ago that showed fawns traveling to feed sites lost just as much fat as those with no access to food provided by people.
Even though the food is high in nutrients, it lures deer to travel farther and gather in open areas where they are exposed to the cold and coyotes. Also, dominant deer often fight off the fawns until they've eaten their fill, so only the strongest animals in the herd get enough food to make the trip worthwhile.
Staats has even seen deer die of malnutrition at feeding sites because their intestinal microbes have not adjusted to a new food source. That's most likely to occur when people put out corn and hay, which have little nutritional value, or bread and other food intended for humans that can cause acidosis and fatal bleeding ulcers in deer.
If people want to help the deer, they should protect mature softwood forests and plant food plots with clover, alfalfa, borage or turnips, Tarr said.
That's a tough sell, especially to people like Gagne who have fed deer for years.
"They were eating my wife's flowers and her bushes, so we figured we'd start feeding them," said Gagne, who also keeps ostriches, peacocks, pygmy goats, roosters, geese, pigeons and a pot-bellied pig.
He said he's heard the arguments against deer feeding, but seeing the same deer return to his yard winter after winter makes him skeptical.
"I'm not the scientist or the biologist, but I don't see any detrimental effect on the deer I feed here," he said.
Source: Associated Press