Wednesday, January 16, 2008

COLORADO OPINION: "Emergency Feeding" of Mule Deer Is Not a Good Idea

GUNNISON — Sometime later this week, the Colorado Division of Wildlife will begin an emergency deer feeding program in the Gunnison Basin.

With night-time temperatures hovering around 20 below zero and snow deeper than a deer’s belly blanketing the surrounding hills, biologists fear mule deer will suffer some unacceptable losses should the snow and intense cold continue.

But it’s winter, and deer are genetically programmed for long, hard winters, biologists say. While feeding the deer might be the socially acceptable thing to do, there are reasons why wildlife agencies across the West are reluctant to begin a feeding program unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Once you start feeding big game, you can’t quit until spring when natural forage returns. Deer can’t readily digest hay and require a specially formulated pellet feed that costs about $300 per ton. Figure each of the estimated 20,000 deer in the Gunnison Basin needs two-three pounds of feed per day and the cost spirals very quickly.

Not all those deer will get fed, since some are in inaccessible places and others might be finding enough food. Still, the DOW plans to feed about half the deer in the area.

“In most cases there’s not much benefit for all the expense,” said Rick Kahn, state terrestrial program leader for the DOW.

“Bluntly, deer are programmed to starve to death in the winter, that’s how they get through a winter.”

Not quite starve to death, but close. Once the snow and cold arrive, deer cannot obtain enough high-quality food to gain weight. Instead, they slowly use their summer reserves all winter long, relying on their reserves and what little feed they find to make it to the spring green-up.

“As long as there is forage, they’ll stay on their natural food but when the sage gets buried and the snow gets crusted, they are in trouble,” said Ron Velarde, Northwest Region manager for the DOW.

It’s part of a deer’s make-up to suffer through winter, Kahn said.

“Ecologically, these things are adapted to pretty tough climates conditions and losing body weight is a normal condition,” Kahn said. “Then, from mid-March to mid-May you get green-up and, boom, the deer get back into good enough condition to fawn.”

Feeding also concentrates animals that normally winter in small herds. Bringing together several hundred deer increases stress and the possibility of disease transmission. Plus, the aggressive nature of deer means the weak and the young might starve anyway.

Some winter mortality occurs every year. Colorado suffers about a 10-15 percent loss of does in an average winter, Kahn said, while fawns may suffer up to 30 percent loss.

“But if you anticipate losing 30 percent of your adult females, that’s a significant, significant loss and it’s time to feed,” Kahn said.

That’s where the Gunnison area deer herds are headed should present conditions continue, biologists said last week.

“We have to look at body and weather conditions and you can’t anticipate what the weather is going to do,” Kahn said.

The last time the DOW fed game in the Gunnison area was 1997. Since then, a growing deer population has increased interest in the deer herds. Plus, Gunnison’s deer winter in areas where watchers can easily see them.

“I think the dynamic has changed in the last 10 years,” Kahn said. “There are so many more animals out on the landscape, there is a lot more competition from elk and a lot more development that keeps pushing deer into smaller and smaller areas.”

Elk find it easier going in winter because they are bigger, stronger and able to digest a wider variety of foods. The DOW said it will “minimize” its elk feeding.

Habitat loss because of development, particularly new subdivisions and energy development in what historically was deer winter range, affects deer winter survival as does the prolonged drought that has reduced sagebrush habitat across the West.


1 comment:

April said...

I found this to be a very interesting article. I live in central British Columbia in a forested area. We've been here for 30 years and have seen many deer, but not so much on our 5 acres. Last year and now at the start of this year we are seeing the deer come closer and using the woods for resting and browsing. There has been some land clearing taking place nearby, and we think that may be one of the reasons the deer have come to us. We are enjoying them though, and fortunately the snow isn't very deep this year. They seem to be doing okay.