2018-02-10 / Outdoors

ELK WATCHER'S JOURNAL

Down side to feeding wildlife

Every winter brings announcements from well-meaning organizations that they are giving out corn for feeding of wildlife.

It’s a complex topic that few people understand. While it does appear that wild turkeys and certain other species can benefit from artificial feeding, wildlife biologists are unanimous in their conclusion that feeding corn to Pennsylvania’s deer and elk does more harm than good.

Two factors are at play – the biological impact of artificial feeding and the “social” aspects. In the case of elk, artificial feeding is against the law.

Deer or elk that consume food put out by people are at risk for sickness and disease. An abrupt change in the animal’s diet causes severe problems with the digestive system and changes in the blood chemistry that can lead to shock and death.

In the dynamics of herd life, the weakest and the smallest elk or deer feed last, after the more dominant animals have taken their share.

No one can provide enough food at a feeding station for a sustained period of time to meet the nutritional needs of a herd of 100 to 150 animals. But the young stay with the group and can starve to death, unable to compete for the food.

It would be far more beneficial if those who want to help wildlife survive the winter would plant some natural cover to reduce weather-related stress, or provide food in the form of digestible native plants on their property.

Animals can also suffer as they become habituated around homes and camps. There are good reasons to keep elk, deer and bears wild. When they frequent particular food sources, they are more susceptible to poaching and they can become a nuisance.

Animals that are habituated to humans are also easier targets for licensed hunters. Blogs have already been buzzing about whether a fair-chase elk hunt is possible in Pennsylvania.

Most guides take their clients deep into the woods on real hunts. Chances are that many of the animals those hunters shot had never been seen by tourists and were taken in areas where most people have never trod.

Nonetheless, some elk in Pennsylvania are habituated and, because of it, can be easy targets. The situation creates tension and provokes anti-hunting sentiment.

Perhaps you’ll recall my column about the two well-meaning Coloradoans who adopted a young elk with unfortunate consequences. Neighbors complained that the 300-pound elk sometimes slept on their porch and would approach them for food.

The elk became so habituated that it chased and attacked a family on a hiking trail. The animal became the victim of vandals who sprayed it with paint and placed a bag over its head. Ultimately, the elk had to be put down.

Simply put, a wild animal should never be conditioned to lose its fear of people.

Let’s not habituate or domesticate our wildlife. They are not pets. They deserve to be wild. We, as well as the generations after us, deserve the opportunity of seeing them in a wild state.

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