Fish and Wildlife receives numerous inquiries regarding the feeding of deer and other wildlife, especially in winter. Supplemental feeding is not necessary to sustain wildlife populations and the division advises against it (though backyard bird feeding during winter months is acceptable). People should keep in mind that that deer and other wildlife are wild animals and have adapted to cope to the sometimes harsh winter weather, including deep snow, cold temperatures and high winds.
Feeding is defined as placing food, either natural or artificially produced, with the intent of supplementing the naturally occurring food available to deer in their normal home range. Supplemental feeding does not include leaving unharvested agricultural crops, leaving agricultural bi-products in place after normally accepted harvesting, cutting native vegetation or artificially fertilizing herbaceous or woody sites, or baiting for the purposes of hunting.
Feeding of wild deer is undesirable because:
- Feeding increases reproductive potential.
Deer with higher nutrition levels have larger litter sizes and breed earlier. Does dependent solely upon natural food sources generally breed at 1.5 years of age and give birth to a single fawn. Does with supplemental food breed at 6 months of age and give birth to one fawn; 1.5 year olds generally have twins, and triplets are not uncommon in older does.
- Deer lose their fear of humans.
In NJ, deer are considered a “potentially dangerous species” because of their ability to inflict serious physical harm to humans with their hooves and antlers. Male deer become more aggressive during the breeding season, and females may become defensive of their fawns. The last reported attack of a deer on a person was in 2012 in Lake Hopatcong, NJ. Deer that become problematic are usually euthanized.
- Feeding enhances the spread of disease and parasites, and may compromise the health of non-target species.
Concentrating deer in unnaturally high numbers around food piles increases nose-to-nose contact and may heighten the transmission of pathogens and parasites. Additionally, large piles of supplemental foods like corn often develop toxic fungi, which cause ill effects to both deer and other animals that come to the food pile.
- Deer feeders are bad neighbors.
Deer cannot meet all their nutritional needs from a food pile, and will consume the plantings of surrounding properties or devastate the surrounding natural environment after the supplemental food is consumed. Because feeding concentrates deer in unnaturally high numbers, environmental damage is often severe.
- Feeding can change behavioral patterns.
Feeding may cause deer to cross roadways they normally would not, increasing the potential for deer-vehicle collisions.
- Feeding can sicken and kill deer.
Deer, like most animals, have symbiotic microorganisms in their digestive system which enable them to break down the cellulose found in plant matter. As the seasons slowly change from one to another, so too do these organisms change to accommodate the change in available natural foods. When deer are fed high carbohydrate foods out of season they lack the necessary gut microflora to digest these foods. This can result in a condition known as lactic acidosis, which causes bloating, diarrhea, enteritis, and in some cases, death.
Deer do not need our help. Supplemental feeding for deer survivability is completely unnecessary because NJ has mild winters with little extended snow cover and highly productive habitat throughout a majority of the state result, which results in little to no winter losses. Additionally, deer adapt physiologically and behaviorally to winter. In the fall, deer deposit subcutaneous fat and replace the summer coat with a highly insulted winter coat. In winter, metabolism slows to conserve fat reserves, and behavior is modified to be less active and to seek sheltered areas during extreme weather.
Some states have banned the feeding of deer as a preventative measure to prevent the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD which) has been found in captive and wild deer in 26 states, including New York and Pennsylvania.
The primary consequence to NJ of finding of CWD in our state is the concern of a reduction in the ability to actively manage our wild white-tailed deer population through sport hunting. This would result in an increase in agricultural and horticultural damage, increased deer-vehicle collisions, and the loss of millions of dollars in revenue to businesses which support the hunting community throughout the state.
Deer do not need human assistance for survival, even in the worst NJ winter. They have evolved for millennia without a human-supplied food source and will continue to thrive. Deer are beautiful wild animals and should be afforded the respect they deserve. Wildlife lovers are encouraged to enjoy their presence passively and allow them to live as the wild animals they are.