The problems with feeding deer

In the afternoon, when the long shadows of a short winter day grow even longer, the deer visit my bird feeder. Since the feeder is just outside of the kitchen window and next to where the dogs are when outside on their cables, it may seem the deer are making a bold move. But the does and their fawns know the dogs and me. They are accustomed to our daily routines. You might say my yard is their yard.

I get along with my whitetail neighbors. Trees and shrubs are caged with fencing to prevent unwanted browsing. An electrified wire surrounds my vegetable garden. When you live among whitetails, protecting trees, shrubs and gardens is just common sense.

The deer can’t find much sustenance beneath the bird feeder aside from empty sunflower hulls discarded by the birds. Ever hopeful, the deer spend a few minutes nosing under the feeder nearly every day. I suspect this is because they are conditioned to find food in some of my neighbor’s yards. In Minnesota, deer feeding is nearly as common as bird feeding.

We used to feed deer, too. When we moved into our house some 20 years ago, one of the first things we did was to begin putting out whole corn for the deer. This was during the “Mother of All Winters” in ’95-96, when long bouts of below-zero weather were interrupted only by raging blizzards. The deer trails leading to the corn pile were deep furrows in the snow. In deep-snow winters, the deer have trouble finding sufficient natural browse. There is no doubt that artificial feeding can make a difference in whitetail survival.

We had fun feeding the deer and soon had more than a dozen showing up as daily dinner guests. We learned there is a pecking order among whitetail families, which are often interrelated. We also discovered deer have distinct personalities. An especially precocious button buck soon earned moniker Baby Buck. We enjoyed watching his antics.

But there is a dark side to deer feeding. One morning that spring I found Vikki standing outside in her nightgown, shouting and shaking her fist at Baby Buck, who was calming devouring newly sprouted day lilies just six feet from where she was standing. That year, the deer destroyed just about everything we tried to grow. One evening in early July I noticed the broccoli was ready to pick and planned to harvest it the next day. During the night, the deer beat me to it.

We persisted at feeding deer for a few more years, mostly because it was enjoyable to have them around. But the longer we did it, the more we began to question whether it was the right thing to do. One afternoon, I had to shoot an old buck that was struck by a vehicle while crossing the highway on his way to our corn pile. We worried about wolves, attracted by the deer, going after our dogs. In early summer, there seemed to be more ticks in the yard. And, when you have lots of deer hanging around, pretty soon your yard has the ambiance of a feedlot.

Eventually, we stopped feeding the deer. The enjoyment of seeing them was outweighed by the nuisances they created. If the deer wanted to check out the bird feeders, that was fine. We made sure the feeders were high enough the deer couldn’t stand on their hind legs and get at the feed. Even though we weren’t feeding deer, we continued to see them on a daily basis, simply because our yard was within their home range.

While wildlife officials frown on artificial feeding, they rarely take steps to discourage it. A few Minnesota municipalities have banned feeding as urban deer populations reached unacceptable abundance, but feeding continues everywhere else. Supplying backyard feeders is an important source of revenue for many feed stores across the state.

But the issues associated with artificial feeding deer remain and grow increasingly complex. I doubt the subject has been studied, but beginning in the 1990s, there seems to be a correlation between the growth of backyard feeding and the illegal baiting of deer by hunters. In some rural locales, the line between feeding and illegal baiting is pretty fuzzy. Especially dismaying is that a sizeable segment of the state’s hunters no longer has the confidence or skill to hunt whitetails without relying on artificial attractants, whether it is illegal bait, a legal food plot or a DNR-authorized commercial product.

Disease issues have become increasingly complicated. We now are susceptible to several tick-borne illnesses. Some studies point to a correlation between deer abundance and the prevalence of ticks. Chronic Wasting Disease has gained a foothold on the Minnesota landscape. We know CWD is more likely to be transmitted by deer in close company, such as in a deer farm (the primary source of the disease) or an artificial feeding station. Southeastern Minnesota’s CWD zone is the only place where the DNR has banned feeding.

In the north, we also have predator issues. Where I live on the North Shore, late winter is the time when wolves begin showing up around human habitation, often to the consternation of said humans. The wolves are there because that’s where the deer are. And the reason the deer are hanging around is because people are feeding them. Often, the folks feeding the deer fail to make that connection, because wolf predation is largely unseen. As an example, a couple of years ago a neighbor said that when she was walking her Lab on a trail across her property, there was one place where the dog became noticeably uneasy and she frequently saw fresh wolf tracks. She later learned another neighbor was feeding deer nearby. It is possible that neighbor had no idea the wolves were lurking just beyond the backyard.

It’s easy to come up with reasons not to feed the deer. But doing so doesn’t change a simple fact about human nature. People take pleasure in using food to attract deer and other wildlife so they may see them. Conversely, those folks who enjoy feeding deer may be blind to the nuisances doing so creates for their neighbors. Perhaps that’s just another aspect of human nature.

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By Shawn Perich