Big Game Winter Feeding

Question: Snow covers the land and game animals look hungry as they search for food through the cold blanket. Why isn't someone feeding them?

Answer: That question arises every time an Idaho winter is severe enough to bring game animals down out of the hills into contact with humans. To the good-hearted citizen and concerned sportsman, meaning most of the people in this state, the answer may seem simple. Wanting to do the best we can for animals, domestic or wild, is basic human nature.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game wants the best for wildlife, too. Furthermore, Fish and Game is legally required to preserve, protect and manage Idaho's wild game resources.

Some people do not understand, then, why Fish and Game is cautious about establishing feeding programs and why it may appear reluctant to do so.

The reasons for Fish and Game's policies and actions have been formed through decades of experience and study. Once examined, they are really not difficult to understand and they have everything to do with the good of Idaho's big game.


The Idaho Fish and Game Commission, the body of citizens appointed to set the rules the Department administers, has adopted the following policy statement:

The test of any policy is whether it works. Those who doubt the effectiveness of a virtual "hands off" rule might consider that Idaho's huge wilderness areas, where almost no one goes in winter, sustain some of the largest and healthiest herds of elk and deer in the country. Those herds have survived winter after winter without human help.

In those few areas where Idaho Fish and Game has long-established winter feeding programs, human development forced the issue. Such places include the Wood River Valley, Garden Valley and Featherville, where critical historic winter ranges have been replaced by homes, and on the Idaho-Utah border, where construction of the Interstate highway blocked the annual deer migration. Winter feeding was chosen over the potential loss of important herds, and those areas are exceptions to the rule.

Hunters pay the costs of feeding, when it must be done. Funding comes through a $.75 surcharge on deer, elk and pronghorn hunting tags. That money is held in a special account to be used for winter feeding and winter range improvement programs only. An advisory committee of five members in each winter feeding district meets whenever appropriate to give advice and recommendations on the administration of winter feeding programs and act as a liaison between the commission, the department, interest groups, and the public on winter feeding issues.

In addition to buying feed, the $.75 surcharge is used to improve winter range. By far, improving winter range is the most cost efficient and effective way to help wild animals survive winter. Winter range improvement projects include planting more than 200,000 bitterbrush plants annually, revitalizing Conservation Reserve Program lands, and reseeding important winter forage species after burns. Fish and Game will continue to prioritize available funding for winter range improvement.

Problems With Feeding
Feeding is not the simple act of kindness many people see it to be and can, in fact, be a great detriment to the welfare of animals for several reasons. Among the reasons Fish and Game considers it a last resort are these:

  • Health problems, including eye and respiratory infections, are frequent in the herds concentrated around feed sites. The change from natural to supplemental feeding also often causes scours (diarrhea) in fawns. Reproduction in some herds that are fed every winter – such as the Jackson, Wyoming, elk herd – is dramatically lower than it is in Idaho's herds, at least partly because of communicable disease. Idaho's big game animals are healthy, and game managers want to keep them that way.
  • Depredation on nearby private lands has been caused by establishing feeding sites in some areas. Big game animals concentrate on the sites and their numbers tend to increase each year.
  • Concentrating game animals at feed sites makes survival of the fittest even more a factor than it is under natural conditions. Intense competition for food in limited space has been seen to cause a higher death rate in fawns and calves than where herds were more scattered under natural winter conditions.
  • Range damage occurs in the areas around feeding sites because animals continue to eat natural plants even when they are being fed. Where supplemental feeding takes place year after year, natural winter range vegetation can be overused and may never recover.
  • Difficulty adapting to man-provided feeds is a problem for big game animals even though Fish and Game has learned to dispense high-protein diary grade hay for elk and a special multi-ingredient pellet food for deer. Wild animals are accustomed to wild range vegetation and need the variety in their diets.
  • Expense is extremely high in feeding operations in comparison to the relatively few animals it may help. During the 2001-2002 winter the cost to feed less than 1 percent of the state's elk and deer was nearly $450,000.
  • Starvation happens primarily to animals that enter the winter in poor body condition, according to careful biological studies. Deer research has shown that animals in good condition can survive the winter with very little feed. Supplemental feeding is virtually irrelevant to survival.

In addition to these reasons for making cautious decisions about feeding, Fish and Game does not want to promote the misunderstanding that winter feeding can be an adequate way to make up for human actions resulting in the loss of natural winter habitat. No substitute for complete, healthy, four-season habitat exists.

Mule Deer in Deep Winter Snow / Photo by Terry Thomas

The Idaho Fish and Game Commission recognizes that big game populations should be maintained under natural conditions and by natural available forage. Winter food is the major limiting factor which determines the basic size of the big game populations and it must be maintained if these animals are to prosper and propagate. In order to maintain these winter ranges, big game numbers must be controlled through adequate harvest. We, therefore, do not sanction any widespread supplemental feeding programs.

We are aware that big game harvests and weather will vary from year to year throughout the state. In most years, snow depths and temperatures do not create adverse conditions for wintering animals. However, there are times when unusual weather patterns may create critical periods of stress when winter forage becomes limited, unavailable, or animals are forced into areas involving public safety. We recognize that we cannot manage game populations for these extreme weather situations-nor should we. When the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, through investigation by field personnel, determines that a critical situation exists, . . . the department will provide artificial feed to wintering game animals only during those periods of critical stress.

The intention of this policy is to provide emergency feed for big game animals only during those periods of critical stress and not as a sustaining program which would carry larger game populations than the range can normally support.


If Fish and Game Doesn't Feed, Why Shouldn't I?
Fish and Game generally discourages private citizens from feeding big game because it is difficult to obtain feed that will actually sustain wild game animals. For instance, deer will eat hay readily but can actually starve if that is the only feed they have. Also, once a feeding program is begun, animals must be fed until they are ready to move back to natural forage; some private feeders may not be prepared for the long haul.

Selecting good locations for feed sites can be tricky. Several bad situations have been created where private feeders lured animals too close to livestock and stored crop operations with severe results for the farmer or rancher. Safety is another consideration. Some private feeding operations have been established too near roads.

Keeping Wild Animals Wild
Big game animals adapt quickly to new situations, as nature meant them to for survival. They easily learn new patterns of feeding and soon come to count on human help. Fish and Game has an obligation to wild animals to prevent them, whenever possible, from becoming anything but wild. Supplemental feeding can interrupt long-established migrations and creates behavior alterations.

Though nature may seem unkind sometimes, it is perfectly natural that 10 to 15 percent of deer and elk will not survive a mild winter; more die in a harsh winter. Animals ill-equipped to survive are taken from the herds by starvation, accidents, predators, exposure (freezing), diseases and parasites. Feeding may save a few from starvation but does nothing to halt losses from other causes.

Last Updated: July 25, 2014 
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