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Why feeding wild animals is really bad for humans and wildlife

Posted: 11:39 AM, Jan 02, 2019
Updated: 2019-01-02 13:05:41-05

IDAHO — If you've ever been to Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon, you may have seen some seemingly tame deer. That has a lot to do with the fact that people are feeding them. But biologists in Idaho say feeding wild animals is a bad idea.

Normally wild animals like deer are wary of humans, so why was a mule deer in the middle of McCall, Idaho, and why did it approach a KIVI reporter when he was pointing a camera at it? Darrel Meints, Idaho Fish and Game's deer and elk coordinator, thinks he knows.

"I'm guessing that deer has been fed based on its behavior,” Meints said. “I think she's going to see if you're going to throw her a handout."

Deer that have been fed become habituated to humans, and what may begin as a seemingly compassionate act — feeding a hungry deer or two — can become a major nuisance for landowners.

"People will call us and the call will start out 'well, last week there was one or two deer in my yard and I felt a little sorry for them and I threw them a little hay and now there's 10 or 20 or 30 in my backyard, and they're eating all my shrubs and trees,' " said Meints.

Getting that close to a deer is an interesting encounter to say the least, but feeding deer can actually increase their odds of dying, especially during winter.

"Mule deer don't do well eating alfalfa. They're browsers. They eat woody shrubs and trees and things of that nature. So, you can make them sick and they don't do well," Meints said.

People who feed wildlife in high traffic areas like McCall, Idaho, greatly increase their likelihood of being hit by a car, which could kill the animal and cause thousands of dollars in damage. But that's not the only hazard habituated animals bring to humans and their pets.

"When you have large numbers of animals like that, you will draw in predators like mountain lions or coyotes of that nature," said Meints.

As tempting as it may be, these are just some of the many reasons biologists say, with the possible exception of song birds, feeding wild animals is a bad idea.

"Oftentimes people think they're doing the right thing and helping wildlife, but over the long run they're not. In fact, they could be doing more damage than good,” said Meints.

During severe winters, fish and game departments perform emergency feeding operations, providing starving animals with the proper nutrition.