Elk looking for food in the snow.

Elk looking for food in the snow.

Feeding Big Game During the Winter  

Happy 2016 everyone!  Sorry I have not been writing much lately, I have been very busy with my new job and life in general.  One of my resolutions for the new year is to get back to writing more frequently, and that’s a resolution that should be easy enough to keep.

It’s a cold and snowy day in Colorado, we have had a lot of snow so far this winter with a lot of cold temperatures already, and we still have three months to go.  Today a friend of mine sent me a picture of three mule deer grazing in her yard.  She lives in the foothills, so that is not an uncommon sight for her.  Some people wonder how big game animals like deer and elk can survive the frigid winters, not only in the mountains but all across America.  You can read an article I wrote on that subject by clicking here, (this article was published last year in Colorado Bow Hunter Magazine.)

While some people feel the need to “help” deer and elk by feeding them in the winter, this is actually a very bad idea for several reasons.  First of all, the digestive systems of deer, elk, moose, and bighorn sheep are specialized for natural food sources, not the common types of feed we give to livestock and pets – hay, corn, grains, alfalfa, birdseed, and dog food. When big game eat food not suited to their systems, especially during the winter, they can develop digestive problems that will kill them within a few days.

Here’s what happens: As fall begins, the digestive systems of ungulates change so that they can efficiently digest vegetation that is naturally dried out and that is low in nutritional value such as leaves, twigs and grasses. When they eat nutrient-dense food such as corn or alfalfa, their digestive systems produce high amounts of acid which causes them to become dehydrated.  When that happens they’ll become sluggish but also drink lots of water.  If you see a deer barely moving but eating lots of snow that is a sure sign that people have fed them.

mule deer in winter

Mule deer in winter.

In addition, artificially feeding deer and elk creates other problems, such as causing large numbers of animals to congregate in a concentrated area.  This can cause the spread of disease more easily, attract predators such as lions and coyotes, and also decimate the habitat.  Deer and elk can migrate up to 20 miles to their winter habitat, and if artificial feeding is done late in the fall, this could cause herds to cease their migration to their winter grounds, which could prove fatal to the entire herd.

There are a few things to keep in mind about big game.  First, they have evolved over thousands of years to be able to survive in harsh conditions.  They spend all summer and fall fattening up for the cold months ahead, and this fat provides up to 40% of their energy source during the winter.  Also, it is nature’s way to weed out the weak and old animals of a herd, which is better for the herd in the long run, and these animals are more vulnerable to predation during the winter months.

A moose in the winter.

A moose in the winter.

If you own land large enough to support wildlife, the one thing you can do to help animals is provide a habitat with plenty of natural shelter and forage the animals need to be healthy before and during the winter.  It is also important to recognize hunting as a wildlife management tool, and landowners may choose to let hunters on their land to help manage the wildlife populations.  If you are a land owner I would suggest contacting your state’s wildlife management organization and speaking with a wildlife biologist, they are always more than willing to give advice on this subject.

Even though it is cold, I hope you are getting outdoors to enjoy some winter activities like ice fishing, bird hunting, or just sightseeing  If you are lucky enough to see animals, remember that they are there for a reason; they have evolved and learned to survive in that habitat.