Why Human Feeding Can Hurt Deer

Mar 24, 2015

Deer have "adapted to survive these severe winters," says Dan Bergeron of New Hampshire Fish and Game. The state advises residents not to leave food out for deer because of the dangers it poses for them.
Credit Ben Hudson via Society for Protection of NH Forests

Last week, 12 deer were found dead in South Hampton. On Tuesday New Hampshire Fish and Game announced the cause of those deaths: feeding by humans.

Dan Bergeron is a deer project leader with New Hampshire Fish and Game. He joined All Things Considered with more on what happened.

 What were these deer fed, and why was that bad for them?

It appears they were fed a number of different things, based on the necropsies, which is basically an autopsy on an animal, that were performed on them. They found corn, pelleted grain and hay in their stomachs. The problem with those food sources for deer is, when they're suddenly introduced to a new food source, particularly in the wintertime - like those that are high in carbohydrates - their stomachs aren't built to digest them effectively.

 

With deer, there are different microorganisms in their stomach that help them to digest different types of foods. Those microorganisms gradually change as natural food sources gradually change. So when they're suddenly given a food source they're not used to, their stomachs can't handle it, can't digest the food and in some cases can lead to a buildup of bacteria that can raise toxins, which was the case in these deer. It created a condition in them that caused their deaths.

 

The statement from Fish and Game made it sound like the feeding was intended to help the deer, which clearly it did not.

 

It's actually fairly common for people to feed deer in the winter. A lot of people do it because they think they're helping the deer. It's not illegal in this state to feed deer but we highly discourage it.

 

There were two feed sites in the area that were located by our conservation officer. He did let the people know what had happened. Obviously they were very regretful it happened. They immediately decided to stop feeding. I'm sure they won't ever do this again. But clearly they had no clue this was a possibility, and they thought they were helping the animals.

 

You said it's not uncommon that people will feed deer in the winter in New Hampshire. How common is it that you would see something like this, with multiple deer dying so quickly?

 

This is one of our largest documented cases we've seen in recent history. We've seen it before in the past - we had a deer earlier in the winter in February, a single deer that was found that we believe died due to improper feeding.

It's tough to document because if you just find one deer dead in the woods, you don't think very much of it - and that's assuming that it's even found before another animal, a coyote or something, scavenges it. So we don't have a great idea of how often it's happening. We don't think it's anything that's driving the population up or down, but it's certainly a risk that's out there that we want to make people aware of.

 

Of all the reasons I've heard of to discourage people from feeding deer, this is one I hadn't heard before. But there are plenty of others.

Yeah. One of the other main reasons we tell people not to feed deer is an increased likelihood they'll be hit by cars. We see this pretty commonly in the far northern part of the state, where feeding is actually done pretty extensively. These deer are crossing streets more frequently than they would normally, and it just increases the chances they'll get hit by a car.

 

Overall, though, what do we know about how the state’s deer have done over this winter?

 

We get the impression they've fared fairly well. February was a pretty severe month, but up until then it had been a fairly mild winter. Often times we'll see that and if the winter leaves quickly on us, that can lessen the impact it'll have on deer. We also conduct surveys of special habitat types deer use in the wintertime. We look for dead animals - if we find dead animals we look for the condition they're in - and based on what we've seen in our surveys, and the few dead animals we have found, they've still been in very good condition, they've been able to move around very well. Access to natural food sources,  which are good for them - we had a lot of acorns this past year. Deer have been digging in the snow for acorns, so they've had a lot of food sources. They seem to be faring fairly well even despite how severe February was.

 

And as long as people aren't feeding them.

 

That's right. They're adapted to survive these severe winters.