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Winter feeding program needed for U.P. deer

January 23, 2009
Daily Press

ESCANABA - This winter is sadly appearing to be a match to the catastrophic season that the whitetail deer experienced across Michigan's Upper Peninsula in 1995-96. Snow depths and temperature chills are running parallel to those that saw one of the largest die-offs in history. What remains to be seen is how long it will last.

We not only saw a severe winter back then, it was an extended period of heavy snow and cold temperatures that delayed spring break and caused many deer, young and old, to succumb to mother natures temperament.

The issue of the supplemental feeding of wildlife is complex. Certain species, the turkeys for example, are still on sanctioned programs to support their populations as they anchor in the U.P. The whitetail deer feeding programs, however, were all but curtailed statewide after the increased prevalence of bovine tuberculosis was found in Deer Management Unit (DMU) 452 in the northern Lower Peninsula.

There is now a permanent ban of all wildlife feeding practices throughout the entire Lower Peninsula since Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was discovered in one deer from a captive cervid facility in Kent County.

In February of 2004, the NRC did amend its ban policy to allow supplemental feeding of deer to take place in the historic high snowfall and low deer population region of the U.P. The areas included Ontonagon, Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga, Alger and portions of Marquette and Chippewa counties. The order is due to sunset this year and will have to be renewed by the NRC in order to continue.

The U.P. wildlife conservation organizations that supported the programs back then felt there should have been a formula incorporated that could have been used as a trigger for the whole region as to where and when feeding should take place. This year is a good example of why that idea had merit.

If we continue to see these severe conditions throughout the U.P., we stand to lose a great number of deer, many of which have migrated from the northern highlands to warmer yarding areas. The winter migration of deer is mostly exclusive to the U.P.

I believe it is critical to do something as we see the mean deer population goals for both the western and eastern U.P. tracking below projected numbers for a period that extends to the year 2010. Those wanting to utilize supplemental feeding of deer are doing so to preserve a base huntable population.

Still, those who are concerned about the spread of disease have a valid point in that close proximity of deer does increase contact and the potential for contamination. What is missing from the equation, though, is the fact that the feeding of deer under the stressors of winter will help many survive and will actually ward off illness that comes from the deer being in a malnourished condition. The feeding does not cause disease.

Wildlife experts in Wyoming used supplemental feeding of elk during the winters near Jackson Hole for the same reason and only experienced problems of brucellosis in first time pregnancies of cows. I recall times when white cedar was cut on both public and private land to assist deer through tough winters. Years ago, jobbers who were logging public land had criteria that required them to work until break-up so that deer wouldn't be stranded without food before they had a chance to get out of the yards.

The clause was unenforceable and was the primary reason that U.P. Whitetails Association started its emergency feeding program in the south central U.P. It was done with the help of the DNR, which prescribed feeding sites.

I would hope that the NRC votes to continue the feeding program here and expand it to utilize more specific guidelines that again will define when and where feeding should take place.

The Winter Severity Index (WSI) used years ago started at levels between 70 and 80 and proved to be an accurate measure of when deer are becoming severely stressed and will begin to die. (The new general snowfall indicators being used by the DNR are patterned like those found under WSI.) The local DMU area herd size estimates were also checked against carrying capacity (again considering winter migration) to be sure feeding would not support overpopulation.

If utilized, the system would potentially expand the boundaries in the U.P. where feeding is permitted, but it would also further restrict feeding in areas that have not experienced high stress situations. It would also be encouraging to see the NRC include guidelines for how to feed as was once done by former wildlife chief Ed Langenau.

Ed wasn't a big fan of feeding but was a realist and understood how much of it was taking place. His focus was on making sure those who felt the need to feed understood the overall impact that improper practices could have.

It was all for the good of the critters.



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