SALT LAKE CITY — Don’t feed the animals.
That’s the advice from Utah Division of Wildlife Resources officials after corn kernels were discovered in the gut of a deer that recently died of chronic wasting disease in the Moab area.
While it is not illegal to feed wildlife, DRW officials say there are several reasons why it is highly discouraged, including public safety concerns, the spread of chronic wasting disease among deer, elk and moose, and potential harm to wildlife from introducing foods not in their diets, particularly during winter months.
Deer are ruminants — mammals that acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach before digestion. They have four-part stomachs, and each stomach chamber contain microbes that progressively break down woody, leafy and grassy foods into smaller particles. The microbes in deer digestive systems gradually change throughout the year and are specific to the food that is available.
During the winter, deer primarily feed on sagebrush and other woody plants. Changing a deer’s diet can easily lead to the deer eating food that it cannot readily digest. In these situations, deer often die from starvation with full stomachs.
And when deer congregate to feed, it’s every deer for itself. The larger deer often push the smaller deer — the fawns — aside, and they often end up receiving less food than they would have received if people had left them alone.
“This is why feeding deer and other wildlife is usually not a good idea,” Covy Jones, the division’s big game coordinator, said in a statement. “Although it sounds like an act of kindness and may sometimes help some animals get through the cold months, it can create major problems.”
And whenever someone feeds wildlife, those animals will frequently return to the area, often near highways and towns, in search of food. Concentrating deer and other wildlife near inhabited areas can sometimes result in increased traffic accidents and other human/wildlife conflicts.
In addition, feeding deer can cause them to congregate in one area, increasing the chance that chronic wasting disease, which is highly contagious, is spread from one animal to the next.
Although relatively rare, the fatal transmissible disease affects the nervous systems of deer, elk and moose. It has been compared to bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cows, which is often called mad cow disease.
“Because the disease is so contagious, it is essential that residents do not feed wildlife,” said Aaron Bott, regional outreach managers with the division. “This includes putting out corn, hay, dog food or birdseed that deer might easily access. Although it may seem like a beneficial thing to do, feeding deer actually accelerates the spread of this disease. In the most recent CWD deer fatality in Moab, biologists found corn kernels in the deer’s gut, suggesting it had been feeding on food provided by humans.”
Studies have shown that humans, dogs, cats and other species are unlikely to contract the disease. However, the DWR recommends avoiding diseased deer. Any deer that has trouble walking, drools, has drooping ears or looks emaciated should be reported to the nearest DWR office.