As cold weather continues in Wisconsin, state wildlife officials say people should consider the negative impacts of wildlife feeding and look to alternatives that provide long-term benefits to help wildlife through a cold and snowy winter season.
"People want to see healthy deer on the landscape, but feeding is not the best solution," said Tim Marien, a wildlife health specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "Improving habitat provides natural food sources that support deer and many other types of wildlife year-round."
Even a mild Wisconsin winter can cause concerns, but deer and other wildlife commonly seen in Wisconsin adapt both physically and behaviorally to even the harshest winter weather. Animals with adequate fat reserves and good winter cover are more likely to survive.
"Deer start preparing for winter during the summer, when nutritious natural food sources are abundant," said Marien. "When winter arrives, they seek out shelter in stands of pine, cedar and fir that provide cover from snow and wind, and they'll search for winter foods in the vicinity until spring."
However, some winters can overly stress individual animals, and this can reduce their chances of survival. Especially during hard winters with bitterly cold temperatures, concerned citizens may turn to feeding to help deer through the winter. While this may have some benefit to individual animals, feeding often occurs on a scale too small to affect the overall condition of the deer herd.
Feeding can also have a negative impact on deer, as it draws them out of winter range where having forage and cover nearby help deer conserve energy. Feeding also increases the risk of disease spread and severe digestive issues. Visit dnr.wi.gov and search keywords "winter feeding [PDF]" to learn more.
As a reminder, deer feeding is illegal in some Wisconsin counties. Where it is legal, regulations restrict the location and amount of food that may be placed. Feeding deer is also prohibited when elk and bear are using the site. For a full list of wildlife feeding regulations and what counties feeding is allowed, search keywords "feeding regulations."
"Feeding restrictions are in place to protect the health and safety of both humans and wildlife," said Marien. "In areas where elk and bear are present, feeding can present a safety risk when these animals acclimate to people. Also, elk are susceptible to several diseases that deer carry, which can weaken the elk herds that Wisconsin has been working to grow over the past few decades."
Improve habitat to help deer through a tough winter
Creating and improving habitat can give deer and other wildlife the resources they need during summer months and sustain them during the winter. Maintaining nutritious natural food sources like oak, aspen and crabapple provides summer and fall food, while evergreen stands create winter cover and food for deer. Cutting trees and providing browse is a more natural food source and can also provide better cover in the long run. Good habitat fulfills the needs of many deer, rather than a few individuals.
A variety of resources are available to help landowners improve their land for wildlife, including the Deer Management Assistance Program, the Young Forest Initiative and the Landowner Incentive Program. More information on these programs and additional publications is available on the DNR website by searching keyword "landowner."