ALEXANDRIA, Minn. -- States like Minnesota and others in the far northern regions of the Midwest almost always have bouts of extremely cold temperatures or heavy snow falls that trigger an instinct in people who feel they need to help wildlife make it through the winter with supplemental feeding.
In the case of deer, it’s almost never necessary and can do more harm than good, said Minnesota DNR big game program leader Barb Keller. In more than half of Minnesota counties, including Douglas and Pope in West Central Minnesota, it is illegal as part of the DNR’s response to trying to control the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease. As of Dec. 30, the state’s deer-feeding ban had expanded to include 44 of Minnesota’s 87 counties.
Supplemental feeding through the use of something such as a corn feeder can increase the likelihood of disease spreading by concentrating deer into small, specific areas on the landscape where they would not naturally concentrate. Deer feed includes grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, hay and other food that is capable of attracting or enticing deer.
CWD, an always-fatal neurological disease affecting the cervid family, spreads between deer through body fluids like feces, saliva, blood, or urine, either through direct contact or indirectly through environmental contamination of soil, food or water.
“This is just one layer of disease risk that we as people have control over,” Keller said of the feeding ban. “If it’s corn that deer are eating, they’re spreading saliva in that small point source. They are defecating and urinating in that area, and we know those are all ways that CWD can be transmitted. In many cases, it puts their mouths in direct contact with the ground where that saliva and urine and feces are being deposited. It’s a higher-risk area for that disease to be transmitted from how deer would naturally forage on the landscape.”
Supplemental feeding through the use of a feeder or piles of food also have the potential to draw deer in from outside their typical home range.
“We know that these regulations alone aren’t going to solve the issue of CWD,” Keller said. “We have many other actions we take such as more liberal bag limits, carcass movement restrictions in some areas, targeted culling in some areas. This is an additional set of tools we use.”
Feeding, attractant ban potential across the state?
The feeding ban is in place in counties within close proximity to a confirmed case of CWD found from a deer at a captive facility.
This is the case in Douglas County, where a deer from a small farm tested positive for the disease in December of 2019. CWD has not been found in the wild deer herd in deer permit areas 213 and 273 near Alexandria after two seasons of testing. A total of 443 samples were collected in these two DPAs in 2021 with no positive cases.
"In general, it’s just not a good idea to feed deer, and you’ll see that messaging coming out from pretty much any state agency, even in areas where they don’t have CWD."
- Barb Keller, Minnesota DNR big game program leader
Counties in close proximity to where CWD has been found in the wild deer herd have a feeding ban and an additional ban where attractants such as salt, minerals and urine are not allowed. Todd County is a part of the counties with both a feeding and attractant ban.
The prevalence of CWD in Minnesota's wild deer herd continues to be low, but the disease is expanding to more regions of the state. Once mostly confined to the southeast, a wild doe tested positive for CWD in 2019 near Brainerd, and a wild deer tested positive near Climax along the Minnesota-North Dakota border this past October.
“I will say that it’s really important that we keep hunters with us and supporting our actions,” Keller said when asked about a potential feeding and attractant ban across Minnesota. “We can point to when we have identified that, yes, the risk is there and we’re going to put these management actions into place. I would say hunters generally support that more than if we don’t know the risk is there and we’re going to put something in place that affects them as far as not being able to feed deer or put attractants on the landscape. Certainly it’s a discussion we continue to have of should we have a statewide ban? We haven’t done that yet, but we continue to have a conversation.”
Ban includes deer around bird feeders
Alexandria area conservation officer Mitch Lawler said that he does deal with some complaints of people illegally feeding deer in his work area, but it is not a frequent occurrence. What he does come across is people who are unknowingly breaking the rule through the use of bird feeders.
Deer will often gravitate toward any kinds of grains they can find during the winter if it is easy to get at. That means bird feeders can be a common attractant.
“If it is drawing in deer, that would be in violation of the ban,” Keller said. “They need to make sure the feeders are far enough off the ground so deer aren’t able to feed directly from the bird feeders, or have some other way -- a fence around them -- so deer aren’t able to access that.”
Supplemental feeding of deer ‘almost never necessary’
The idea that people need to offer supplemental feed for deer to help them through the winter is almost never accurate, and in many cases, it can be detrimental.
Whitetails are one of the most adaptable wildlife species in the country. They thrive in home ranges from the deep south to the northernmost states and within multiple different habitats.
“It’s almost never necessary,” Keller said of supplemental feeding. “Deer have evolved along with Minnesota winters. It’s natural for them to have a period of nutritional restriction when their metabolism slows down and when they’re eating very little. They can cope with those sorts of conditions in most cases without being negatively impacted. Certainly, we can have severe winters where we do see an impact on the deer population, but supplementary feeding deer usually doesn’t help because of the amount of feed you’d have to put on the landscape. Even in years where we have had emergency deer feeding, we haven’t seen a difference in impact to the population of it helping.”
Deer survive in many cases by conserving energy and foraging on natural browse. They will feed within larger food plots or crops left over from the fall harvest where available, but supplemental feeding can do more harm than good as deer start to behave unnaturally.
“They can lose their fear of people, they can be more aggressive at feed sites and then you might have them crossing roads to get to these areas where they wouldn’t necessarily be doing that and then you have deer/vehicle collision increases,” Keller said. “Then there’s the health issues of it’s generally not good for deer. It can cause problems, especially if you go from a situation where they’re eating very poor types of forage and then they switch to a very high-carb corn diet very quickly. That can sometimes cause death. In general, it’s just not a good idea to feed deer, and you’ll see that messaging coming out from pretty much any state agency, even in areas where they don’t have CWD.”
The best way people can help deer this time of year is often to simply leave them alone.
“Especially if you have any area on your property where deer like to bed down, don’t disturb them,” Keller said. “Them having to get up and move around, maybe it’s people going to fill their feeders, they’re disturbing deer. Deer also are getting up to go to those feeders when they could be resting and conserving their energy. In most cases, it’s best to just stay out of the woods and let deer be. In most cases, they’ll be OK.”
MINNESOTA COUNTIES INCLUDED IN DEER FEEDING BAN -- Beltrami, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Roseau, Carlton, Chisago, Douglas, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Pope, and Stearns
MINNESOTA COUNTIES INCLUDED IN DEER FEEDING AND ATTRACTANT BAN -- Clearwater, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Dakota, Dodge, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Hennepin, Houston, Hubbard, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Mower, Olmsted, Ramsey, Rice, Scott, Steele, Todd, Wabasha, Wadena, Washington and Winona