Feeding deer is no casual endeavor, biologist advises

Northwoods Notebook

Deer maneuver through snow in northern Dickinson County. Deep snow cover in much of the Upper Peninsula has made it difficult for the animals to move and find forage. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photo)

A number of Upper Peninsula residents have called the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in recent weeks about feeding deer, concerned the deep snow cover in much of the region has made it very difficult for the animals to move and find forage, said Monica Joseph, a wildlife biologist at the DNR’s Crystal Falls office.

In fact, after I spoke with Joseph on Friday morning, the DNR announced later in the day it would issue supplemental deer feeding permits for the southern U.P. counties, though not within the chronic wasting disease core and expanded CWD surveillance zones. For more details on what will be allowed, see the story on page 1-A.

Joseph said residents have good reason to fear for the deer under such conditions — Dickinson County, she noted, has snow depths not seen since the mid-1990s after the snowiest February on record. It also is late in the season, when the deer have gone through a fair amount of their fat reserves.

But supplemental feeding can be a tricky prospect this time of year. In winter, a deer’s gut is geared to break down woody browse. If not previously fed, a sudden introduction of an unfamiliar food source, such as corn, to a digestive system unprepared for such fare may wreak internal havoc on the animal.

Other types of feed may fill the belly but provide little real nutrition. In this case, deer can be killed by kindness.

Another snag in potentially stepping in is alfalfa, which some use to feed deer, is in short supply in the region, Joseph said.

For some deer, the best recommendation might be to let the situation play out, she advised, adding that a certain percentage of deaths are normal for all but the mildest winters.

As Bill Cook of the Michigan State University Extension put it in a January 2014 article, “Severe winters will kill deer and there is nothing that can be done about it. This is true for many species of wildlife. That is the way of nature and nature is not particularly pretty.”

One sign of how well the deer are faring this winter is to watch their behavior along roads, Joseph said. For now, many deer are coming onto the roads because the high banks of plowed snow block many of their natural paths and travel routes. Once on the road, they might be forced to run along the shoulder until they find another opening in the banks, such as a driveway.

The banks have created a rise in roadkill, as they make it difficult for drivers to see the deer as they come onto the road until it’s too late to react and the deer may be unable to leap over these snow walls to safety, especially the fawns.

But the deer are not lingering on the road. If they become reluctant to move away, that’s a troubling sign they might be at the end of their resources, she said.

The deer she’s seeing for now don’t look too bad, Joseph said — not much thinner than expected for March in a normal winter.

The key will be “when it breaks,” she said. Will a consistent warm-up come soon enough to clear much of this by April? Or will snow cover linger through much of that month, delaying the green-up deer need to recover from the lean winter forage?

Last year saw snow continue well into April, including a substantial storm late in the month. It led to dire predictions that many of the previous summer’s fawns would not survive and the pregnant does likely would have fewer fawns in the spring.

Though some deer were lost, for the most part that late winter blast did not have the severe effects feared — the fawn crop and yearling numbers stayed about normal, Joseph said.

Her advice — if not already feeding, don’t start; just let it play out. If feeding, however — and Joseph acknowledged some residents likely have been feeding without a permit — it needs to continue.

“We’re not proponents of feeding,” Joseph said, “but once you’ve started it, you have a responsibility.”

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.