Dan Bergeron: (603) 271-2461
Jay Martin: (603) 271-3211
December 21, 2019
CONCORD, NH – As winter officially arrives in the Granite State, people may be noticing that deer have changed their activity patterns, and that more numerous and larger groups of deer are being observed. New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Deer Biologist Dan Bergeron offers a strong warning to anyone thinking about feeding deer.
“Although you may feel bad for deer and want to help, the Fish and Game Department would like to remind the public to please not feed deer,” says Bergeron.
Sound scientific reasons exist to support this advice.
The deer are okay, even in the winter. Deer have developed several adaptations to survive severe winters and therefore do not require supplemental food. Deer have a highly insulative winter coat to keep them warm, they can store large amounts of body fat to use as energy reserves, they will intuitively reduce their food intake and daily activity to conserve energy, and, most importantly, they migrate to specialized habitats known as deer yards.
Since over 80% of the state’s forestland is privately owned, much of the Department’s management of this critical habitat is done through cooperative agreements with landowners. Feeding deer puts these management efforts at risk by drawing deer out of their wintering habitat and removing the incentive for private landowners to conserve and manage deer yards on their property. It’s difficult to convince a landowner to expend money and resources managing a deer yard if all the deer have been drawn out to supplemental feeding sites. Conservation and management of natural winter habitat is the key to long-term survival of deer in the state, not the placement of human-provided food sources.
Supplemental feeding can harm our deer. Most people who feed deer are well intentioned, but they do not realize that there are a number of unintended negative consequences associated with feeding deer.
Feeding deer the wrong type of food, or feeding at the wrong time, can directly lead to their sickness and death. This was the case in 2015, when twelve deer were found dead in South Hampton, NH from being improperly fed.
Because deer are ruminants, they process food differently than other animals. Deer depend on microorganisms in their stomach to aid in digestion. As a deer’s diet naturally and gradually changes with the seasons, so do the microorganisms that are required to help digest those foods. This gradual change in microorganisms can take several weeks. A rapid transition from a high-fiber diet of natural woody browse to human-provided foods high in carbohydrates can cause a rapid change in stomach chemistry, disrupting the microorganisms present. This can reduce the deer’s ability to properly digest food and/or cause the release of toxins which are absorbed into the deer’s system. “Many of the most common supplemental foods people provide deer with in the winter are high in carbohydrates, and when introduced rapidly and in large quantities, these foods create a risk for deer. This is precisely what caused the death of the twelve deer in Hampton in 2015,” Bergeron concluded.
“Aside from death directly associated with feeding, several other negative consequences are associated with winter feeding of deer,” adds Bergeron. “These can include an increased likelihood of vehicle collisions, over-browsing of local vegetation and ornamental plants, an increased risk of predation, and an increased risk of disease transmission, which is why the Department strongly discourages the practice.”
Residents in the northern part of the state should be particularly concerned about disease transmission from deer feeding given the recent discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Quebec. If this disease crosses the border into New Hampshire, congregations of deer at winter feeding sites would create an efficient way for the disease to spread more rapidly throughout the state. Since CWD is an always fatal and incurable disease, this would have a devastating impact on the Granite State’s deer population.
For more information, including short videos, on the risks associated with feeding deer, visit www.wildnh.com/wildlife/deer/index.html.