Fed, then dead: N.H. supplemental feeding kills 12 deer; Maine deer also at risk

A news release from New Hampshire Fish and Game unveiled a harsh reality earlier this week, and Maine’s top deer biologist said the practice that left 12 deer dead — supplemental feeding by well-intentioned animal-lovers — takes its toll on this state’s deer as well.

   A one-antlered deer takes center stage among several others near Stratton recently. A landowner regularly feeds the deer and people often stop by to take photos of the hungry herd. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Urquhart)

A one-antlered deer takes center stage among several others near Stratton recently. A landowner regularly feeds the deer and people often stop by to take photos of the hungry herd. (Photo courtesy of Alyssa Urquhart)

According to state officials in New Hampshire, a dozen deer were discovered, dead, in South Hampton. The deer were all within 300 feet of one another, and consequent autopsies of two deer showed that the cause of death was enterotoxemia, which is a condition caused by a rapid change in the diet of a deer.

Those who fed the deer meant well. Unfortunately, a deer’s physiology can make the animal susceptible to disease when its food source changes, or when an inappropriate food is provided by humans.

Kyle Ravana, the deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, explained that the New Hampshire deaths illustrate the reason his department has consistently discouraged people from feeding deer.

“White-tailed deer have mutualistic relationships with different types of bacteria that inhabit their digestive systems,” Ravana wrote in an email. “These bacteria help to break down the often coarse materials consumed by deer, such as hemlock and cedar during Maine winters.”

Deer undergo seasonal changes, Ravana said, and different bacteria are prevalent at different times of year.

“The specialized bacteria in their stomachs helps them to break down, digest and maximize what they can get from the plant,” he wrote. “During winter, people, with the best of intentions, often feed deer items that are high in carbohydrates, which requires a different composition of bacteria than what is needed to digest the coarse, woody material that makes up the greatest part of a deer’s over-wintering diet.”

And that, Ravana said, can cause serious problems.

“As is the case in New Hampshire, this may result in the death of the animal as a result of enterotoxemia, and/or acidosis,” Ravana wrote.

Ravana said two Maine deer died of acidosis in 2013.

The New Hampshire incidents highlight the risk of feeding deer, but does not tell the whole story, Ravana said. The biologist said there are plenty of other reasons to avoid supplemental feeding.

Among them:

  • Feeding deer can lead to more car/deer auto crashes. “People often do not consider the location of their feeding sites, which may result in high numbers of deer regularly crossing high-traffic areas in order to gain access to the feed,” Ravana wrote.
  • “Short-stopping” the deer by stopping a feeding regimen after the deer have become habituated to the feeding site. “Feeding is expensive,” Ravana wrote. “If the person feeding [the deer] finds they can no longer afford to feed the animals, they may increase the risk of starvation of the deer should animals become stranded and unable to find adequate winter habitat.”
  • Overbrowsing the natural habitat is a natural consequence of feeding. “Feeding can bring deer in from miles around,” Ravana wrote. “As such, deer densities may remain higher than what an area might usually experience during the winter, resulting in too many deer for the habitat to support and remain healthy.”
  • And if too many deer are huddled in the same space, it creates a perfect spot for infections and disease to spread. “The high densities of deer found at feeding sites may potentially increase disease transmission rates causing [a disease] to spread across the landscape at a faster rate than it otherwise might,” Ravana wrote.

Instead of feeding deer, Ravana encourages people to support efforts to establish optimal winter habitat for deer.

“Maintaining and increasing pertinent habitat is a much more long-term, and natural, solution to help maintain Maine’s deer population,” he wrote.

And even when winters are long and harsh, Ravana said leaving the animals alone is the best practice.

“Time and again, Maine has experienced numerous harsh winters which have negatively impacted the state’s deer population,” he wrote. “However, the resiliency and adaptability of white-tailed deer has allowed the animal to persist in Maine despite the fact that we have winters such as we are experiencing now. We do not need to feed deer in order for them to be successful in Maine.”

For more information on the state’s stance on deer feeding, go to http://www.maine.gov/ifw/hunting_trapping/pdfs/deer_winter_feeding.pdf

John Holyoke can be reached at jholyoke@bangordailynews.com or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.