EDITORIAL: Feeding deer during winter isn't helpful

·3 min read

Jan. 28—Readers in the Oneonta area have no doubt had at least one encounter with a deer within the city limits, and the problem this week drew the attention of the city's Quality of Life and Infrastructure Committee.

One city resident told the committee that the problem has become so bad she counted eight deer in a single day in her neighborhood, and saw one get tangled up in a soccer net. The resident, who lives in the Center City area, said she was concerned about tick-borne illnesses spreading from the deer.

Her concerns are warranted, and it's worth asking whether any of us are making the problem worse, intentionally or not. And if you're among those who can't resist the temptation to provide deer with a bite to eat during the barren depths of winter, you aren't doing the deer any favors.

It might seem logical to assume that if the region's flora is almost completely covered in a layer of snow and ice this time of year, the deer must be struggling to survive. But whitetail deer have adapted over thousands of years to become perfectly attuned to their environment — and they've done so without relying on handouts from humans.

Deer are lean, slender creatures accustomed to a sparse diet, and this is especially true during the winter months, when their metabolism slows to a crawl. They're accustomed to going without food for long stretches in winter; University of New Hampshire researchers estimate that a deer in winter draws about 40 percent of its energy from stored body fat and loses about 20 percent of its weight during the season.

Despite this, deer will eat food left out for them by humans during winter, often with tragic results. A photo on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website shows a deer that died in front of a corn pile from the disease enterotoxemia, or pulpy kidney disease, caused when animals eat more food than they're capable of digesting. When adapted to a sparse winter diet, a deer's digestive tract simply can't handle so much food. An unexpected bounty of food can trick the deer's body into expecting a spring diet out of season. If they manage to avoid eating themselves to death at such feed sites, the deer leave bloated and lethargic, hindering their ability to avoid predators and vehicles.

Overeating isn't the only problem caused by feeding deer in winter. Deer generally browse for food alone in the forests, so enticing large numbers of them to congregate around food piles makes it easier for diseases to spread. They're also more prone to traffic accidents when encouraged to visit human-occupied territory.

Oneonta and the surrounding area are exactly the sort of environment where deer and humans interact; too urban for predators and hunting, while remaining rural enough to preserve sections of natural habitat. Similar communities have dealt with deer overpopulation by resorting to heavy-handed methods we'd rather avoid, such as poisoning or the hiring of sharpshooters. Local residents can do their part to keep our deer healthy and safe by keeping their garbage cans secured, and by avoiding the well-intended but harmful practice of leaving snacks out for them.