The Idaho Fish and Game has been monitoring winter conditions and potential impacts to big game animals throughout the Southeast Region. Though this winter has brought significant snow accumulations in some areas, especially in the southeast corner of the state, a winter-feeding emergency does not exist at this time.
The decision to feed (or not) requires careful consideration and is based on a process of information gathering, science, experience, and a desire to do what is best for wildlife. Wildlife managers from Idaho and other states know that although emergency winter feeding can have broad social appeal, feeding does not prevent mortality on a population level and can even do more harm than good.
Big game is adapted to survive
Big game animals can survive winter conditions due to their unique adaptions, especially if they have access to winter ranges and are left relatively undisturbed. However, it is still a fact that every winter, wild animals die. Some years mortality is worse because of extreme weather, poor body condition of animals going into winter (linked to summer drought conditions), lack of quality winter range, or a combination of these factors.
Winter feeding is a complex matter and does not work the way most people think. Though it can be an effective tool for “baiting” wildlife away from livestock feedlines, haystacks, and busy roadways, it saves very few animals from starving.
This is particularly true for mule deer. Unlike elk, mule deer are highly selective foragers due to their specialized and complex digestive system. That’s why supplementally fed mule deer can still die, even with full stomachs. In fact, the best means for surviving a tough winter should have happened before the first snowflake fell by building sufficient fat reserves from summer foraging. Once winter hits, building or even maintaining those fat reserves is next to impossible, even with supplemental feed.
Advisory Committee keeps tabs on winter conditions
The Winter Feeding Advisory Committee for the Southeast Region is composed of four citizen volunteers from across the region, approved to serve on the committee by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission.
The WFAC members track weather, wildlife movements, snow depths and other landscape conditions, and they serve as sounding boards for citizens in their communities. They meet as a committee and communicate with Fish and Game staff on a regular basis.
Using established emergency winter-feeding criteria, the WFAC can make feeding recommendations to Fish and Game for staff consideration. However, the final decision is left to Fish and Game's Regional Supervisor.
Emergency winter-feeding criteria
Idaho Fish and Game personnel and the WFAC consider several factors when evaluating a winter-feeding course of action.
- snow depths
- number of consecutive days of subzero daytime temperatures
- presence of crusted snow
- winter range conditions and access to winter range
- animal body conditions
- number of animals affected
- animal movements near or across roadways
- depredations on private property
Problems with feeding wildlife
Winter-feeding operations may seem like a humane gesture, but they can cost animals in the long-term for many reasons:
- When animals congregate at feeding sites in high densities, the transmission of diseases from respiratory ailments to brucellosis (in elk) to chronic waste disease is intensified.
- Concentrated animals compete aggressively for supplemental feed even when that feed is properly dispersed, often with the young or weaker animals losing to the stronger adults.
- Animals concentrated at feeding sites can attract predators.
- Animals can over feed on vegetation surrounding feed sites. The concentrations of animals can be three-to-five times higher than normal at feed sites and cause significant damage to surrounding habitat as far as 100 acres from feed locations, which can mean poorer winter range conditions for several years afterward.
- Feed sites literally stop animals in their tracks, preventing them from completing traditional migratory routes. Once fed, animals are very likely to return to the same location in subsequent years as opposed to continuing to travel to more appropriate locations. This new behavior is shared with each successive year’s offspring and migratory traditions are lost.
- Private citizens who engage in unauthorized feeding don’t always offer the correct diet to animals, especially deer, which can go through dietary shock from eating foods like hay, apples, and corn. Well-meaning individuals may unintentionally draw wintering wildlife across busy roads and even create property damage issues for themselves and neighbors.
- Feeding operations may habituate wildlife to people.
Winter conditions around the region
According to current Idaho SNOTEL data reported by the USDA/NRCS, areas of the Southeast Region are registering between 143% and 194% of normal moisture, with the southeast corner of the state receiving the most moisture so far this winter.
The WFAC members and Idaho Fish and Game personnel are monitoring snow conditions around the region almost daily, making note of areas where wildlife are moving and stationing.
Areas around Pocatello, Blackfoot, Malad City, Preston, and American Falls have experienced periods of alternating snow and rain events in recent weeks, with warmer temperatures resulting in bared off slopes in some areas and lesser snow at lower elevations. Deer and elk are moving well in those areas for the most part.
Bear Lake and Caribou counties have received significant snow this winter, especially since the end of December. Deer and elk as a whole are still able to find refuge in those counties, though moving is certainly more difficult. As with any winter, mule deer mortalities are expected to be higher in Bear Lake County than in other parts of the Southeast Region.
Winter feeding updates
The WFAC holds its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Any input or questions about winter feeding can be relayed to the Idaho Fish and Game regional office in Pocatello by calling 208-232-4703. This input will be forwarded to the committee.
For winter feeding updates and meeting notices, please visit our Southeast Idaho Region Fish and Game webpage at https://idfg.idaho.gov/region/southeast or our regional Facebook page @IDFG.southeast. Updates will be posted after each WFAC meeting and following any changes in feeding actions taken by the Southeast Region.
Idaho Fish and Game has implemented winter feeding during previous winters and can do so again if deemed absolutely necessary. However, given the fact that winter feeding saves few animals from starving while posing other long-term biological costs to wildlife and habitats, Idaho Fish and Game will not automatically default to winter feeding during harsh winters. Rather, wildlife managers will continue to focus efforts throughout the year on other more successful strategies for ensuring population sustainability.