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Weighting pros and cons of deer-feeding programs

February 20, 2009
by Tim Kobasic

ESCANABA - The rumor mill is in high operation as we near the end of yet another U.P. winter.

Weather conditions in February were favorable to wildlife in the region, with warmer temperatures and a reduction to the snowpack in the south central U.P.

The January Winter Severity Index (WSI), used years ago to gauge the stress level on whitetail deer, had been hovering around 45, well below the dangerous high points starting at 70-80. It is at that level stressors impact deer so much we start seeing die-off, especially with fawns who rank low in the feeding hierarchy.

Winter supplemental feeding of deer has remained controversial since the increased prevalence of bovine tuberculosis in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Feeding was banned statewide, with later reprieve given to the northern snowbelt region of the Upper Peninsula. There, deer populations are well below carrying capacity and the effort to feed is simply to sustain a huntable population.

The benefits of artificial feeding of deer have been argued for decades and has pit the Michigan Department of Natural Resources against a lot of conservationists who feel feeding is a viable tool.

Retired Wildlife Research Biologist John J. Ozoga, who used to head the DNR Cusino Deer Research Facility, once wrote a paper with guidelines for artificial feeding of wintering whitetails. Included in the publication was a brief history of supplemental feeding, expressing both the pros and cons of such programs.

He wrote that "supplemental feeding of deer to prevent large scale winter-kill has been tried (and failed) in many states, including Michigan. Most ventures were ill-conceived emergency ventures, however, and offered relatively poor quality feed in limited amounts to animals already in starving condition. Severe losses were seldom averted, and in many instances over browsing by large concentrations of hungry deer caused irreparable damage to the natural habitat.

"In sharp contrast, feeding of big game is routinely and successfully employed in Europe where herds are more intensively managed and 'culled' to regulate sex-age composition and size. Moreover, such operations are carefully planned and conducted annually, not done on a spur-of-the-moment basis."

The latter version was utilized in a program established by U.P. Whitetails Association (UPW). It was subsequently abandoned following the increased prevalence of bovine tuberculosis in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Twenty years ago, suspect timber harvest areas holding stressed deer in the south central Upper Peninsula were monitored by Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) personnel and if conditions were bad enough, a message to UPW triggered a response for emergency supplemental feeding.

Second crop alfalfa was used as it was readily available and was close in nutrition to that of white cedar, a common staple of the deer's winter diet.

Participating club members were instructed on the proper means of spreading the feed, assuring deer would also pick up enough moisture to support their healthy diet.

Since the closure, a blanket program for feeding deer has re-opened in the northern U.P., primarily in the high snowfall region. All baiting and feeding of deer in the entire Lower Peninsula remains shut down by rule, due to the find of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in Kent County near Grand Rapids.

It was originally an interim order that was later made permanent and supported by the State Legislature in making it the law.

A recent bill (HB-4198 of Feb. 5) introduced by 110th District Representative Mike Lahti has speculators claiming it is part of a plan to forever shut down baiting and feeding statewide. The fact is the bill simply extends the sunset clause of 2010 to 2016, allowing the MDNR authority to extend the rule as needed.

The DNR is not closed minded in the suggestion feeding can continue and perhaps expand to some reaches of the U.P., and there is also no formal dialogue ongoing to ban bait hunting statewide.

In my discussions with MDNR division staff and Director Becky Humphries, consideration can and should be given to a formula once proposed by UPW and a coalition of conservation clubs regarding winter feeding of deer.

When and where winter feeding should take place could be determined by use of a formula, incorporating a combination of factors that include the Winter Severity Index (WSI), Population Dynamics, Habitat Conditions and Cause Circumstances.

It provides a scientific approach not currently being used in some parts to the north.

The DNR does remain steadfast on the ban in the L.P. They indicate that policy will not change until such time it is clear CWD was not spread outside the current surveillance zone.

It boils down to understanding what is taking place by fact. Unfortunately, and once again, rumors started by some become a fact for others and thus cause for alarm.



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