Points North: Considering the Consequences of Backyard Deer Feeding

What are the consequences for feeding deer?
What are the consequences for feeding deer?

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Lately, we've had wolves in the neighborhood. At winter's end, hundreds of deer that spent the snowy months on the south-facing ridges along North Shore move downhill, congregating near Highway 61, where the warming sun exposes bare ground a few weeks before the deep snow melts in the woods. Along with the deer come the wolves.

Although a natural occurrence, this annual mini-migration interferes with people. Most of the North Shore's human population lives along the Highway 61 corridor, so they see the deer and wolves along the roadside and in their backyards. Conflicts are inevitable. Cars collide with deer on the highway. Wolves attack pet dogs—sometimes within view of their owners.

When wild animals conflict with people, the critters are always at fault. Coffee shop biologists loudly expound how there are “too many deer.” Across the room, someone else will proclaim there are “too many wolves.” In either case, the pronouncements are decreed as absolute truths. Other than listing the accused critter's supposed crimes against humanity, the role of people in these conflicts is rarely considered.

A week ago, a friend of mine was walking her dogs on the outskirts of Grand Marais when she came upon some wolf droppings along her path. As always, the droppings bristled with deer hair, but she was surprised to notice they also contained corn kernels. Now, it’s possible the wolf in question ate a corn-fed deer, but it is also possible the wolf ate corn at someone's backyard deer feeder. After all, it is not uncommon for hunters to attract wolves to their autumn bear baits. Wolves are scavengers as well as predators.

Along the North Shore and elsewhere in Minnesota, putting out corn for deer is nearly as common as feeding the birds. While a few folks in the north woods have fed deer for at least 50 years, backyard feeding exploded in popularity following the bitter winters of the 1990s. Now, in winter, the Highway 61 corridor is essentially a 100-mile-long deer feedlot. Whitetails spend their winter days walking from one backyard to the next, munching on a boundless buffet of shelled corn and other goodies.

Winter feeding leads to profound changes in behavior and survival for northern whitetails. Deer dependent upon people for their daily rations become less wild. They hang around human habitation, causing damage when they browse on desirable vegetation or are struck by cars. While deer feeders don't seem to make the connection, backyard deer attract wolves, too.

Corn-fed deer never have a hard winter. They are much more likely to survive deep snows and bitter cold than deer relying on natural browse. They are in better condition at the end of winter, which is an advantage for pregnant does. Instead of rising or falling in abundance based on winter severity, artificial feeding allows deer numbers to grow regardless of the weather.

More deer leads to other, less noticeable changes in the woods. When whitetail numbers are occasionally decimated by a harsh winter, the vegetation they browse upon has an opportunity to recover and put on new growth. Some species, such as white pine, may even grow above the reach of hungry deer. When deer are abundant year after year, the forest understory suffers from incessant browsing.

As winter feeding became prevalent on the North Shore, whitetails expanded their summer range. When I first moved to Cook County, whitetails were uncommon once you were three or four miles inland from Lake Superior. Moose populated the vast forests. About 10 years ago, as winter feeding became prevalent, I began to notice deer sign in places where I expected to encounter moose. Then I began seeing fewer moose. Some biologists believe there is a strong connection between the growing abundance of deer within the moose range and the ongoing decline in moose numbers, because deer carry a brain parasite that is fatal to moose.

While I haven't heard of any research into the topic, I wonder if there is a link between the northward advance of wood ticks and growing deer abundance. A decade ago on the North Shore, you could go for a spring walk in woods and only pick up an occasional wood tick. Now they are so common some of my friends no longer enjoy going for walks during tick season. I’ve even heard ticks were so bad north of Duluth last fall some grouse hunters were deterred from hunting. While the common wood tick is annoying, its tiny cousin, the deer tick, is known to transmit Lyme’s disease. If you feed deer in your backyard, it seems inevitable you, your neighbors and your pets are at greater risk of being infected with Lyme’s disease.

Feeding increases the health risks for whitetails, too. In southeastern Minnesota, officials are grappling with chronic wasting disease, which showed up in a wild deer last fall, while in the northwest, deer were slaughtered in recent years to stem an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis. Both of these serious diseases are more easily transmitted via close contact among deer—something far more likely to occur at a feed trough than in Nature.

So, considering all of the above, let’s got back to where we started with Coffee Shop Biology 101. Are there too many deer? Too many wolves? Or do we have too many people who are feeding deer? I don’t have the answers for the first two questions and am not sure anyone does. However, the answer to the third question is a resounding yes.

It is past time for people who feed deer along the North Shore or elsewhere to seriously consider the consequences of their actions. Here are five questions deer feeders ought to consider:

One: Do I stop feeding deer when I hear wolves are hanging out in my neighborhood or have attacked one of my neighbor’s dogs?

Two: Are the deer I’m feeding transmitting the brainworm parasite that kills moose and likely plays a significant role in the rapid decline of northeastern moose herd?

Three: Have I considered the cost to my neighbors and the local ecology from the damage to vegetation caused by the whitetails visiting my feeder?

Four: How will I feel if one of my neighbors, their children or grandchildren contracts Lyme’s disease?

And five: How will I feel if someone is injured or killed in a car-deer collision in front of my home?

If answering these questions leads you to stop feeding deer, don’t worry about the whitetails. They’ll get by just fine without your assistance.

Airdate: April 2, 2011

Photo courtesy of Tee Poole via Flickr.

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