Don’t feed the deer: NH Fish & Game warns of unintended consequences of winter feeding

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Five of the twelve deer found dead in 2015 because of winter feeding in South Hampton, N.H., pictured after they were gathered for examination.

CONCORD, NH – As snow depths have increased around the state, people may be noticing that deer have changed their activity, and more or larger groups of deer are being observed.  NH Fish and Game Department deer biologist Dan Bergeron offers a strong warning to anyone thinking about feeding deer.

“Although you may feel bad for deer and want to help, the Fish and Game Department would like to remind the public to not feed deer,” says Bergeron.

There are some really good reasons to follow this advice:

The deer are okay, even in the winter!  Deer have several adaptations to survive severe winters and therefore do not require supplemental food.  They have a highly insulative winter coat to keep them warm; they store large amounts of body fat to use as energy reserves; they will voluntarily reduce their food intake and daily activity to conserve energy; and perhaps most importantly, they migrate to specialized habitats known as deer yards.

Supplemental feeding can harm our deer.  Although most people who feed deer are well intentioned, they do not realize there are a number of unintended negative consequences that are often associated with feeding deer:

To start with, feeding deer the wrong type of food or at the wrong time can actually directly lead to their sickness and death.  This was the case back in 2015, when 12 deer were found dead around a feed site in South Hampton from being improperly fed. Bergeron is concerned because this winter is shaping up to be very much like the winter of 2015, when New Hampshire received very little snow until February.

“The sudden increase in snow depth likely caused people to become concerned for deer and resulted in the sudden introduction of supplemental food for deer,” says Bergeron.  “However, because deer are ruminants, they process food differently than other animals.”

He explains that deer depend on microorganisms in their stomach to aid in digestion.  As a deer’s diet naturally and gradually changes with the seasons, so do the microorganisms that are required to help digest those foods.  This gradual change in microorganisms can take several weeks.  A rapid transition from a high-fiber diet of natural woody browse to human-provided foods high in carbohydrates can cause a rapid change in stomach chemistry, disrupting the microorganisms present.  This can reduce the deer’s ability to properly digest food and/or release toxins which are absorbed into the deer’s system.

Many of the most common supplemental foods people provide deer in winter are high in carbohydrates and introduced rapidly and in large quantities, which creates a risk for deer. That is precisely what caused the death of the twelve deer in Hampton in 2015.

“Aside from death directly associated with feeding, several other negative consequences are associated with winter feeding of deer,” adds Bergeron.  “These can include an increased likelihood of vehicle collisions, over-browsing of local vegetation and ornamental plants, increased risk of predation, and an increased risk of disease transmission which is why the Department strongly discourages the practice.”

About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!