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Supplemental Feeding: Are You Helping the Deer?

By Kevin Holsonback, Wildlife Biologist

Supplemental feeding is the practice of making foods other than the natural vegetation and agricultural plantings available for wildlife. It is a practice that is becoming progressively popular to today’s hunting community. Shelled corn, whole soybeans, or some type of pelleted feed are some of the most common foods used for this purpose. Providing supplemental feed for deer is becoming more common. This is done mostly with the intent to benefit the deer herd, but does it?

Deer, like all wildlife, need four basic things in order to survive: food, water, shelter and space. The number of animals that a given tract of land can support in healthy condition is called the “carrying capacity.” Studies have shown that supplemental feeding can increase the population of deer. However, food makes up only one part of the equation that determines carrying capacity. So even if the amount of available food increases, the amount of water, shelter, and space remains the same. This keeps the deer in closer proximity to one another increasing the chance of diseases being transmitted from sick animals to healthy animals. Research has also revealed that deer remain in the area of the feed which increases browsing on native vegetation. It’s been shown that deer actually over browse high-quality vegetation near supplemental feeding areas. Long-term feeding in areas can result in significant damage to wildlife habitats for deer and other wildlife.

Supplemental feeding deer also attracts nontarget animals such as raccoons, opossums, wild turkeys and other birds and small mammals. Those species can be more susceptible to diseases than deer. High levels of aflatoxin, a byproduct of certain molds associated with small grains, have been found in bags of “deer corn” in several states. This can be toxic to wildlife, especially the smaller species.

On properly managed habitat deer can receive the nutrients that they need from the natural browse. Baiting by hunters is associated with supplemental feeding. Baiting has all the negative consequences of supplemental feeding in addition to removing the element of fair chase from the hunt. Battery-operated devices designed to sound like mechanical deer feeders are available for purchase. This suggests that deer can become accustomed to the sound of a feeder turning on, making them more vulnerable to being harvested. Is this really what we want to call hunting? 

It is becoming clear that supplemental feeding can do more harm than good. Let’s keep the deer healthy and wild so that many generations of hunters and wildlife watchers can enjoy them.

For more information concerning managing your deer herd contact your local Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries District Office or visit Research and Management.


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