Despite relatively mild winter conditions, the sight of snow and cold temperatures often results in a desire for Wisconsinites to feed deer and other wildlife that typically adapt both physically and behaviorally to even the harshest winter weather.
Residents and landowners should consider the negative – and sometimes harmful – impacts of feeding wildlife. Consider alternatives that provide long-term benefits to help wildlife through a cold and snowy winter season.
Except for a few far northern counties, Wisconsin’s deer herd appears to be faring well so far this winter. Relatively mild temperatures and only moderate snow levels have enabled deer to move freely throughout most areas of the state.
Feeding deer can draw them out of wintering habitats that would have had forage and cover to help them conserve energy. It can also increase the risk of disease transmission, such as chronic wasting disease (CWD). Feeding deer can also result in severe digestive issues and even death when inappropriate food types are provided.
“The best method of helping deer through the winter is to provide them with good habitat in summer and fall,” said Tim Marien, DNR wildlife health biologist. “As winter conditions kick in, their metabolism changes, allowing them to eat less.” Deer also need to reserve energy by moving less, traveling the minimum distance necessary to feed until spring. Finding cover that protects them from wind, like cattail marshes, conifer tree stands or other types of cover can help deer survive through winter.
Landowners can help provide the necessary habitat to support wildlife throughout the winter in a variety of ways. Cutting trees and providing browse (leaves, twigs, and buds of woody plants) is a more natural food source than feeding deer and can also provide better habitat in the long run. Maintaining nutritious natural food sources like oak, aspen and crabapple provides summer and fall food, while evergreen tree stands create a winter food source and shelter. Good habitat fulfills the needs of many deer, rather than a few individuals.
Animals with adequate fat reserves and good winter cover are more likely to survive the cold winter months. “We all want to see healthy deer on the landscape, but winter feeding is not the best solution and can actually be harmful if done improperly,” said Marien. “Clear cuts and other efforts to improve habitat can provide natural food sources that support deer and many other types of wildlife year-round.”
As a reminder, feeding deer is illegal in more than half of Wisconsin counties. Where it is legal, regulations restrict the location and amount of food that may be placed. Additionally, it is illegal to feed elk anywhere in the state. If elk are visiting a bait or recreational feeding site, it is the responsibility of the landowner to immediately remove the food. For a full list of wildlife feeding regulations and counties where feeding is allowed, please visit the DNR’s baiting and feeding webpage.
Visit dnr.wi.gov and search keywords “winter feeding” to learn more. A variety of resources are available to help landowners improve their land for wildlife, including the Deer Management Assistance Program, the 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.”