WDFW urges people not to feed them
By Ann McCreary
The Methow Valley’s resident mule deer herd is enduring a winter with lots of snow and reduced winter range as a result of wildfires that destroyed vegetation on thousands of acres during the past two summers.
Despite those stressors, the deer appear to be making it through the season as well as can be expected, said biologist Scott Fitkin of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
“The deer seem to be moderately concentrated on low-elevation winter ranges. Their condition overall seems to be fair,” Fitkin said. “Until very recently I hadn’t heard reports of winter mortality.”
On average, about 52 percent of the mule deer fawns die during winter. Whether this winter will exceed that normal mortality rate won’t be known until the middle of April, when biologists compare the fawn/doe ratio to the numbers they observed prior to winter, Fitkin said.
Anticipating the possibility of higher starvation rates among the deer during a heavy winter as a result of reduced forage due to wildfires, wildlife managers increased the number of hunting permits issued during the past two years for antlerless deer, primarily does.
Okanogan County is home to the largest mule deer herd in Washington, with an estimated population of about 17,000 deer in the Methow Valley.
The intent of increasing hunting permits was to reduce the mule deer population to a level that the decreased winter range can support, Fitkin said.
“Starvation is a natural part of deer biology,” he said. However, the competition among the herd for a much-reduced winter food source could have pushed starvation rates much higher than normal.
“There’s definitely less winter forage after the burn. That’s why we’ve been more aggressive on [harvesting] antlerless animals,” Fitkin said.
For the five years prior to the fires of 2014 and 2015, the average antlerless harvest in western Okanogan County (west of the Okanogan River) has been about 345 animals, Fitkin said.
“In 2014 we harvested 768. I don’t have the data for 2015 yet, but it will be somewhere between 345 and 768,” he said.
A long-range concern is the recovery of the land from the damage caused by wildfires, Fitkin said. Reducing the deer population will mean fewer deer grazing the fragile landscape.
“We need to bring the population in line with the carrying capacity of the landscape,” he said.
Wildlife managers estimate that about 40 percent of the overall winter range, and about 28 percent of the highest-density winter range in western Okanogan County, burned in the 2014 Carlton Complex.
“Clearly we added to that in 2015,” with the Okanogan Complex Fire, including the Twisp River Fire in the Methow Valley, Fitkin said, although he wasn’t able to quantify the amount of winter range lost in last year’s fires.
In the wake of the Carlton Complex and the extensive damage to the winter range, wildlife managers developed contingency plans for feeding deer last winter if necessary to prevent widespread starvation. But the winter was so mild that feeding was never considered necessary.
With so much more snow this winter, some valley residents have wondered whether it may become necessary for wildlife officials to begin feeding the deer to prevent starvation.
“We haven’t had this much snow for a few years. But I wouldn’t call this an extreme winter,” Fitkin said.
Fitkin said he’s heard concerns from people worried about possible starvation among the herd “but not as much as I thought I would.” His response to people who worry is to let nature take its course and resist the temptation to put food out for deer.
Feeding deer may make compassionate people feel like they are helping, but actually has a number of undesirable consequences for the deer, Fitkin said.
Given the extensive fire damage to the local winter range, “we don’t want to feed and prop up the numbers [of deer] beyond what it would naturally be, because that would hinder the recovery of the range” and the long-term sustainability of the herd, he said.
When local residents feed deer, it may disrupt instinctive foraging and migratory behaviors that are critical to deer survival, according to a fact sheet from WDFW.
Feeding efforts may attract deer to yards and high-traffic areas, causing damage to landscaping and resulting in vehicle accidents, WDFW said. The feeding can also concentrate deer at feeding sites, which makes them vulnerable to transmission of disease and parasites, and attracts predators like cougars and domestic dogs.
Feed provided by citizens may not be adapted to the specialized digestive system of mule deer, which are very selective foragers. Deer that are fed alfalfa, hay, corn or other traditional livestock feeds may die with full stomachs, according to WDFW.
Mule deer compete fiercely for food when it is limited. That means the biggest, strongest and healthiest animals may exclude younger, weaker animals at feeding sites, WDFW said.
Survival not guaranteed
Even well-executed feeding programs conducted by wildlife agencies don’t significantly increase mule deer survival, Fitkin said.
“I think of the winter of 1996-97. The overwinter fawn mortality was high for sure, and that wasn’t surprising, despite the largest feeding effort we’ve ever done in the county,” Fitkin said.
He said he’s received some reports of deer gathering around haystacks. “I think we’ve had so many mild winters it hasn’t been an issue for people. Now that we’re having a more normal historical winter, it’s become more of an issue,” he said.
One property owner recently reported seeing two dead fawns near a haystack, Fitkin said.
“It could be they are eating forage that is too coarse for their digestive system,” he said. “We’re trying to get people to address it themselves by making their haystack unavailable to deer. We don’t have the resources to protect everybody’s haystacks county-wide.”
Art Nordang, who lives on McFarland Creek, said about 10 deer have been browsing on pear trees in his 8-acre orchard.
“They hit the trees a little harder this year than last year. I don’t begrudge it,” he said. “They’ve always come into the orchard but they don’t do that much damage.”
Nordang said last week he has seen two dead fawns on his property and was “disgusted that they [WDFW] are letting the deer get this hungry.”
He said he was putting feed out for the deer. “I bought a mixture of corn and oats. They really like it,” Nordang said.
Wildlife officials in Okanogan County have a small supply of feed, specially formulated to be digestible by deer, “primarily to deal with damage-related complaints,” Fitkin said.
“We can use feed to draw deer out of an orchard, for example,” he said. That approach has been used in a couple of instances in the Okanogan Valley after WDFW received complaints from orchardists.
“The good news on the deer front is we’re past the midway point as far as winter goes. The long-term forecast, whether you want to believe it or not, is for drier and warmer than normal … winter conditions should be getting easier for deer,” Fitkin said.
“We’re already seeing south-facing slopes opening up in Okanogan and in the south part of the Methow Valley,” he said.