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Massive snowfall creates wildlife quandary

Posted: Friday, Feb 10th, 2017

Deer are visiting Evanston neighborhoods looking for food — but local game warden Nick Roberts worries that the food left out could actually poison the animals’ delicate digestive systems. He is also concerned that huge numbers of deer in town could spread disease, bring predators to town and ultimately hurt the herds long-term as they change migration patterns. (HERALD PHOTO/Bethany Lange)

EVANSTON — To feed, or not to feed? This is the ethical question people are wrestling with as deer flock to town in search of food.

But where feed is left out, there is yellow-stained snow, piles of deer poop through the trampled snow, stripped bark, bright orange plastic fencing around trees and shrubs.

Hathaway Avenue sees at least 100 deer every night, where they flock to yards strewn with feed left out by sympathetic residents.

As parts of Wyoming try to recover from this winter’s snow dumps (and other parts brace for even more), the question is whether feeding deer causes more problems than it solves.

And deer are starving. This year, not only is there snow (and a lot of it), but fluctuating temperatures have caused it to melt and refreeze.

In some parts of the state, even trees might not be enough to keep deer alive as snow levels rise. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, for example, just passed the 400-inch mark this winter, and mountain snowpack around the state (as well as almost everything associated with precipitation) is much higher than average.

But the ethics of feeding deer, especially in town, has been an ongoing debate in Evanston for some time. In the winter of 2015-16, the Evanston City Council surveyed residents about whether they wanted an ordinance against feeding deer.

When the results came back, 455 respondents did not want deer feeding to be regulated, while 298 thought it should be.

As some people feed the deer in town — both out of concern for the animals’ health and also out of appreciation for their beauty — neighbors are sometimes feeling the rub. City councilman Mike Sellers heard from constituents about the 100-120 deer crowding the Hathaway/Herschler neighborhood every evening.

Evanston game warden Nick Roberts said if one person wants to feed the deer in the front yard, there might be conflicts when neighbors find their landscaping stripped and eaten and yards are blanketed in deer feces.

But feeding deer, especially in town, brings a host of health problems for deer even as residents try to save the animals’ lives.

For one, even feeding the deer might prove ineffectual, as nutrient- and protein-rich feed can actually kill them if they are not accustomed to it. Roberts said their digestive systems are very particular and slow to react to change, and this time of year is when they need to be browsing on sagebrush or woody foods. If they have not made the transition, the deer might not be able to digest richer food.

Elk, which Wyoming does feed in the winter, are better able to adapt. Feeding elk also helps prevent diseases spreading from elk to cattle and to protect stored crops.

“Mule deer, antelope and moose are highly selective foragers ... Specific types of bacteria in their rumen are required to aid in the digestion of naturally occurring foods,” according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department website. “Often because their digestive system can’t adapt quickly enough, supplementally fed mule deer die with stomachs full of undigested feed.”

For another, dogs enjoy chasing and barking at deer — but owners can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to six months in jail if their dogs threaten wildlife. With an influx of wildlife into city limits, pet owners may face greater risks both of intentionally or accidentally allowing pets to chase and harass wildlife (see sidebar on A1).

In addition, whereas the deer left on their own would spread out to forage, leaving food out one place can attract dozens or hundreds of deer, which could both spread disease and bring predators (like mountain lions or coyotes) to town.

Roberts said chronic wasting disease isn’t in the area yet, but adenovirus is a major concern. The hemorrhagic disease can kill animals in three to five days. If the harsh winter combines with disease, herds could be severely hurt. Roberts noted that there is no disease risk for humans, though.

Wyoming Game and Fish has also evaluated the possibility of feeding the deer, but has decided against it, not only because of the specific types of feed the deer need but because of the way feeding can disrupt natural migration patterns. Deer may start heading to urban areas, especially as migration patterns are passed on from generation to generation, where they are more likely to be hit by vehicles, pursued by predators and dogs and spread disease.

According to the Wyoming Game and Fish forum video on the website, wildlife usually recover even from really bad winters within three to four years (although it took about seven years for the wildlife to recover from the 1992-1993 winter).

“The logistics of feeding deer and the actual food that you can give wild deer — it just doesn’t pay off ... long-term,” Roberts told the Herald.

Instead, Game and Fish has opted to work out a long-term habitat strategy to improve winter ranges rather than on a short-term feeding strategy.

Do you have an opinion about this story?

Send your letters to editor@uintacountyherald.com.

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