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Plant food plots, but don't directly feed the deer

I spend a few weeks each October and November in both the Colorado Rockies as well as in northwest Minnesota hunting deer and elk. Every trip is unique — weather patterns, wildlife observations and encounters — new sights, new sounds, new experiences.

Where I hunt in northwest Colorado is considered "winter range." Indeed, it is obvious each fall that the area is where deer and elk spend the wintertime because it's quite common to find shed antlers everywhere throughout the landscape.

Similar observations are had in Minnesota. Deer and elk tend to winter in specific locations, especially when weather becomes severe. These northern latitude animals are conditioned through eons of evolution and natural selection to survive in harsh conditions.

Though not all survive each winter, especially the very young and the very old when snow becomes deep, temperatures plummet, and food is scarce, most do survive. As such, it is during times of hard winters when we humans believe that recreational deer feeding might be the answer in helping deer make it through the wintertime.

There is much debate about the merits of feeding wildlife, especially deer. Personally, I am against feeding deer recreationally, for a number of reasons. First, it is unnatural. Attracting deer by planting food plots is one thing and, in most cases, beneficial to deer and other species of wildlife. But pouring shelled corn into troughs, piling sugar beets on the back forty, or buying deer pellets at the local farm supply store is another thing.

Deer biologists and researchers have shown that 75-80 percent of white-tailed deer in Minnesota perform seasonal migrations.

These migratory routes are typically short, but lead to traditional wintering areas and food sources. In the north, "deer yards," as they are called, are often conifer swamps. However, artificial feeding can alter deer behavior by preventing herds from migrating to conventional cover types.

My own rural backyard is a good example of this. My 10-acre woodland, comprised of mostly bur oak, is void of oak seedlings and saplings because of high deer densities and their appetite for woody browse. Additionally, my attempts to regenerate aspen and dogwood and establish conifers such as white pine, red pine, and jack pine, have been thwarted by heavy browsing from resident deer. It has taken considerable time and expense to repair the damage that the woodland has suffered from too many deer on the landscape and to reestablish a component of pine.

As mentioned, during severe winters many young, old, and otherwise unhealthy deer, succumb to starvation and exposure. This is nature's way of keeping populations healthy and stable. By artificially feeding deer, we are facilitating the survival of those deer that would normally have died. Thus, our well-intended actions may cause groups of deer to abandon traditional migratory routes and deer yard sanctuaries thereby effectively increasing a population in an unnatural way, which, in turn, places higher demands on the environment and their dependence on our handouts.

Disease and the spreading of disease is another concern. By concentrating deer in one area through recreational feeding, people are unintentionally increasing the chances of deer becoming ill from such infectious diseases as chronic wasting disease.

This disease, though not known to be transmissible to humans, is a fatal brain disease that can quickly spread throughout a population of deer, elk, and other members of the deer family. It is believed that nose-to-nose contact, which artificial feeding definitely assists, contributes to the spread of this deadly, incurable disease.

It should be pointed out that feeding deer recreationally is not the sole reason for Minnesota's fluctuating deer populations. Changes in weather patterns, forestry and agriculture practices, wildlife management, predator/prey dynamics, and other factors — including societal and political perceptions and expectations about deer biology and management — have all worked toward affecting deer abundance.

Observing deer in wild settings is a wonderful and rewarding experience. Deer are fascinating and a joy to watch. That said, feeding wild deer like domestic cattle from troughs filled with corn and other so-called deer food is, by-and-large, harmful to not only deer, but to the environment and other species of wildlife as well.

And so for the sake of healthy deer populations, artificially feeding deer should be thoughtfully administered, if not avoided altogether, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.