If there's one topic wildlife biologists agree on, it's the folly of feeding deer. Conventional wisdom is unanimous: Don't do it.
Two groups -- animal lovers and wildlife farmers -- feed deer. Animal lovers pity deer when temperatures dip and snow covers the ground. When a big storm blows in, they feel compelled to suddenly offer food. Pallets stacked high with "deer corn" at farm supply stores encourage this harmful behavior. Wildlife farmers see deer as a crop to be fed, fattened and harvested.
In Pennsylvania, feeding wildlife is legal -- only the feeding of elk and bears is against the law.
"But we strongly discourage feeding deer," said Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. "Our executive director has the authority to outlaw deer feeding when disease management is a factor. Presently deer feeding is banned in York and Adams counties."
A detailed explanation by state wildlife veterinarian Walt Cottrell can be found at www.pgc.state.pa.us,
The problem is that deer digestion is a finely tuned physiological process. As the seasons change, deer diet also changes. From herbaceous vegetation in the spring and summer to acorns in the fall to woody browse in the winter, deer require several weeks to slowly adapt to new foods. It doesn't happen in just a few days during a snowstorm. Just the right combination of microorganisms, enzymes and pH enable deer to digest a normal winter diet of woody vegetation.
When offered a sudden supply of corn, a deer's digestive system doesn't have time to adjust to a high carbohydrate diet. The result can be acute acidosis followed by death within 72 hours. Corn makes the deer's first stomach acidic, destroying the microbes needed for normal digestion.
Furthermore, supplemental feeding concentrates deer in small areas where nose-to-nose contact facilitates the spread of infectious diseases. And in traveling to and from a supplemental source of food, deer expend energy they can't afford to lose and become more vulnerable to speeding traffic and predators.
Resist the urge to be kind this winter. A suddenly available supply of corn wreaks havoc on deer digestion and can be deadly. For more information, consult "Feeding Wildlife ... Just Say No!" (1991, Wildlife Management Institute).
Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling) and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.