By Bruce W. Todd, Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife feeding is becoming increasingly popular. It has been a common practice for many years at backyard feeders, and, in recent years, a growing practice for certain game animals, especially deer. It is thought, with some degree of fact, that if you feed wildlife it will come. However, this practice is not without risks.
Even if good feed is provided, feeding can adversely affect the health of wildlife populations. Whenever wild animals are unnaturally congregated in a small area, such as around a trough or feeder, the likelihood of disease being transmitted from one animal to another greatly increases. When trying to understand the significance of this point, use school-aged children for an analogy. Children tend to be at their healthiest during times when school is not in session. They are not spending large amounts of time in small confined spaces with other children. However, when school is in session, one sick child can quickly spread illness to most of the children in a particular class and, possibly, an entire school. Wildlife can be affected in the same way. Some states have banned supplemental feeding of wildlife in an attempt to limit the exposure of their deer herd to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and bovine tuberculosis. Limiting exposure of healthy animals to infected animals is currently the best means known to stem the spread of these and many other wildlife diseases. Eliminating supplemental feeding reduces this exposure rate.
Supplemental feeding of deer also causes other problems. It alters natural movements. Concentrating an unnatural number of animals in a small area increases browsing in the area, which causes severe habitat degradation. That not only negatively affects deer but also other wildlife species.
There is also the real possibility of obtaining feed, especially corn that has high concentrations of aflatoxin, a byproduct of fungi that grows in damp piles of grain. Feed sold for wildlife does not have to be inspected as that sold for domestic livestock. As such, tainted feed can be dispersed as wildlife feed. Such infected grain can have negative impacts on numerous wildlife species that utilize the feed.
Providing supplemental feed can lead to exposure of another kind. A “free” meal left in the back yard for neighborhood deer will also be attractive to many other wildlife species. Other animals do not know the bag of “deer corn” you bought is not for them. Non-targeted species that may be attracted to your feed include foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and, in certain areas of the state, bears. Many would say this is added enjoyment for the wildlife viewer. However, with each animal comes the possibility of an unwanted experience. Targeted and non-targeted species may be initially attracted to your feed but then shift their attentions to other food sources around your home. Some of these foods may be shrubbery, flowers, pet food or your pet.
Healthy alternatives to supplemental feeding do exist. Options include planting fruit-producing species of trees, shrubs and vines; planting healthy field crops; fertilizing and cultivating native species of vegetation; conducting control burns to stimulate new, more productive vegetative growth; and implementing timber management plans that benefit wildlife.
Is supplemental feeding of wildlife unhealthy or healthy? Certainly, “if you feed them they will come.” However, one must decide if the benefit received from feeding outweighs the risks associated with the practice. The best we can do is to let our decisions to feed or not to feed be based on good, sound science, and weigh gains against losses. Quick gains do not justify long-term losses.