Klemek column: Feeding wild deer has unintended consequences

Deer biologists and researchers have shown that 75-80% of white-tailed deer in Minnesota perform seasonal migrations. These migratory routes are short, but lead to wintering areas and food sources.

DNR photo of a young doe on snow in Minnesota.

If ever there is a winter survivor, it’s the white-tailed deer. Yet despite the species adaptability, winters like this year’s prolonged deep snow and cold temperatures combined with a lack of accessible food can put even this resilient species over the edge.

Deer are equipped for surviving the harsh extremes of northern Minnesota winters. Their winter coats, consisting of long, hollow hairs, traps air that provides them the insulation they need to stay warm.

Also, a deer’s metabolic rate decreases in the wintertime, thus allowing deer to conserve energy and reduce energetic needs. This natural “slow-down” of internal bodily functions, a diet of mostly twigs, along with fat reserves, help most deer survive winter. Behaviorally, deer choose habitats that provide thermal protection, too.

Deer normally spend winters in specific locations, especially when weather becomes severe. These northern latitude animals are conditioned through eons of evolution and natural selection to survive in harsh conditions. Though not all survive each winter – especially the very young and the very old – when snow becomes deep, temperatures plummet, and food is scarce, most animals survive.

As such, it is during times of hard winters when we humans believe that recreational deer feeding might be the answer in helping deer make it through the wintertime.


There is much debate about the merits of feeding wildlife, especially deer. First, it is unnatural. Attracting deer by planting food plots is one thing, and, in most cases, beneficial to deer and other species of wildlife. But pouring shelled corn into troughs, piling sugar beets on the back forty, or buying deer pellets at the local farm supply store is another thing.

Deer biologists and researchers have shown that 75-80% of white-tailed deer in Minnesota perform seasonal migrations. These migratory routes are typically short, but lead to traditional wintering areas and food sources.

In the Northland, “deer yards,” as they are called, are often conifer swamps, forests, and plantations. However, artificial feeding can alter deer behavior by preventing herds from migrating to important deer yards.

During severe winters, many young, old, and otherwise unhealthy deer succumb to starvation and exposure. This is Nature’s way of keeping populations healthy and stable. By artificially feeding deer, we are facilitating the survival of deer that would normally have died. As such, our well-intended actions may cause groups of deer to abandon traditional migratory routes and deer yard sanctuaries, thereby effectively increasing populations in an unnatural way. Too many deer on the landscape places higher demands on the environment and their dependence on handouts.

Disease and the spreading of disease is another concern. By concentrating deer in one area through recreational feeding, people are unintentionally increasing the chances of deer becoming ill from such infectious diseases as chronic wasting disease (CWD).

This disease, though not known to be transmissible to humans, is a deadly disease that can quickly spread throughout a population of deer, elk, moose, and other members of the deer family.

It is believed that nose-to-nose contact, which artificial feeding can facilitate, contributes to the spread of this incurable and always fatal deer disease. Moreover, because CWD has been detected in wild and domestic deer throughout northern Minnesota from the Crookston area east to Bemidji and Grand Rapids, feeding bans are in place in those areas.

Simply put, feeding deer is illegal in these and many other counties in Minnesota because of CWD and the need to slow the spread of this dangerous deer disease.


Recreational deer feeding is not the sole reason for Minnesota’s fluctuating deer populations. Changes in weather patterns, forestry and agriculture practices, wildlife management, predator/prey dynamics, and other factors — including societal and political perceptions and expectations about deer biology and management — have all worked toward affecting deer abundance, too.

Observing deer in wild settings is a wonderful and rewarding experience. Deer are fascinating and a joy to watch. However, artificially feeding wild deer is harmful to not only deer, but to the environment and other species of wildlife as well. For the sake of healthy deer populations, feeding deer recreationally should be avoided, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

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