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Feeding deer throughout the winter can do more harm than good

Published by Central Office January 16, 2018

Contact(s): Tim Marien, DNR wildlife health specialist, 608-264-6046

MADISON -- Wisconsin's deer herd is faring well so far this winter as low snow levels have deer moving freely throughout the state. Yet, the onset of snow and cold often turns people's thoughts to overwinter survival and a desire to feed deer and other wildlife. Residents should consider the negative impacts of wildlife feeding as well as 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 provide natural food sources that support deer and many other types of wildlife year-round."

Through the end of December, the Winter Severity Index has tallied a small number of below zero temperature days, but is lacking the more stressful impacts of heavy snows. 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 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, concerned people 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 that offers the best food and cover to help deer conserve energy. Feeding also increases the risk of disease spread and severe digestive issues.

As a reminder, deer feeding is illegal in some counties in Wisconsin. Where it is legal, regulations restrict how much food may be placed and where. 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, visit the DNR website at and search "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 individuals.

A variety of resources are available to help landowners improve their land for wildlife, including the Deer Management Assistance Program, 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."

Last Revised: Tuesday, January 16, 2018

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