Wildlife expert: Feeding deer carries a bite
Though lots of folks buy feed to keep the deer who wander their woods in winter fat and happy, feeding wildlife may do more harm than good in the long run.
At places that sell feed and grain, such as Goffstown Ace Hardware, deer food flies off the shelf at this time of year.
"We used to just carry a few bags, but now we're selling a lot more," said employee Tim Deline. "We now get in 120 bags at a time."
For just under $12, people can purchase a 40-pound bag of feed that combines protein and other nutrients with molasses, which attracts deer, Deline said. There are also deer pellets available in similarly sized bags. When the snow is deep and the deer look hungry, good Samaritans try to help out.
"They feel bad for the deer because there's such a scarcity of food," said employee Casey Anderson. "A lot of it is sympathy, and people really want to see deer in their yards."
But feeding the deer may be more harmful than helpful, said Matt Tarr, a wildlife specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension in Durham.
"The general impression we get from studying deer is that there are negative effects to feeding them," Tarr said.
When deer are fed regularly by humans, they tend to congregate near the food source, creating an unnaturally high density of deer within a confined area during the winter, he said. The deer will eat all of the feed that's left for them, but they'll also eat all of the natural food within that area.
"Over time the area gets degraded and can no longer support deer in large quantities," said Tarr, "and people don't put out enough grain to sustain all of them, so most deer don't get enough food to make a difference to them."
Feeding deer in the winter also offers no advantage to hunters, Tarr said.
"Deer who eat at a feeding site in the winter can be 10 to 15 miles away from that site during hunting season," he said.
Another problem is that deer have a pecking order. The big, healthy animals get to eat first while the smaller, weaker animals — including fawns — only get what's left over.
"The biggest dominant animals get the food first and kick everyone else out," said Tarr. "The subordinate adults and fawns end up not getting any food at all."
If the grain is gone, what's left is the natural food. But if that food supply has been exhausted because of the high density of deer, the weak and young can succumb to starvation and predators, he said. Coyotes, bobcats, even lynx in the North Country feast on deer and like to keep tabs on where each herd is spending its winter, Tarr said.
Most deer endure the coldest months spread out in deer yards — woodland areas that are protected from the heaviest of snow by thick cover of conifers, close to natural food sources. But when humans are putting out feed, the deer may opt for less suitable lodgings and become easy targets for predators.
And deer aren't the only critters eating the feed that well-intentioned humans put out. The sweet molasses mix draws a wide range of animals, including bears, raccoons, skunks and turkeys.
"Pretty much any animal you can think of will eat this stuff," said Deline.