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Leier: Feeding wildlife in winter is a short-term fix at best

Feeding wildlife, especially during the winter in North Dakota, once was common practice embraced by most wildlife professionals. That philosophy has gradually evolved.

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WEST FARGO — Thankfully, winter didn’t really start until December. Living in North Dakota, we’ve felt winter begin in October some years and drag into what should be spring.

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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

The later winter begins and the earlier it exits is mostly better for resident wildlife.

So far, this version of North Dakota winter has been benign if you are a deer, pheasant or other resident wildlife trying to survive one day at a time until spring. But add on another snowstorm or two, and a week-long stretch of below zero temperatures, and people will become more concerned.

That’s when calls to help wildlife will start coming in.

Feeding wildlife, especially during the winter in North Dakota, once was common practice embraced by most wildlife professionals. Putting food such as grain or hay out in a snow-covered, freezing environment where pheasants and deer could easily get at it made sense to biologists, hunters and citizens.

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But over the course of the last few decades, that philosophy has gradually evolved.

The variables and elements to sustain wildlife through a Midwest winter haven’t changed. Food, water, shelter and space – the four components of good habitat – are all required to varying degrees, depending on the species and climatic conditions.

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Historically, for humans wanting what they view as the best for wildlife, food and water were more easily provided, while cover and space were more time-consuming and costly, and thus not considered as easy or economical to put into practice. In fact, years ago, many people felt that simply providing additional winter food would compensate for a general lack of adequate winter cover and space.

While food is important, without adequate winter cover, pheasants can basically freeze to death, even with a full crop. The same thing can happen to songbirds. Death from exposure to snow and cold is a much more common occurrence than death from starvation.

We’ve all seen deer gathered around feeders or alfalfa bales and figured they’d be fine to make it until the spring thaw. But what you don’t see if you’re not watching all the time, is that when deer are drawn out of suitable cover and concentrated around an artificial food source, the natural pecking order keeps needed nutrients from young-of-the-year animals, which can lead to increased mortality.

One of my favorite examples plays out each winter when I get calls from concerned people who have a great horned owl lurking near a bird feeder. The predatory bird realizes the feeder is providing a gathering point for smaller birds.

This is a great example of a well-intentioned practice potentially causing harm to the animals it was designed to benefit, and it helps summarize the current developing theory on feeding: It may be good for an individual or a few animals, but it does not significantly contribute to overall health of a species.

The bottom line, after years of scrutiny and research, is that natural food sources with suitable winter cover nearby are best for sustained wildlife management. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is following that philosophy and has phased out manmade feeders on its wildlife management areas.

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While artificially feeding wildlife may make us feel better and can do some short-term good, the long-term solution requires more and better habitat to sustain or grow a wildlife population.

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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