Feeding Wildlife: Harmful, Not Helpful

Colorado Parks and Wildlife warns the public of the dangers of illegally feeding wildlife.
Video: Please do not feed wildlife!

Residents of Colorado have strong wildlife values, but the actions of even one person can cause great harm to animal species in our communities.

Following several reported incidents that have already led to citations this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife urges the public to refrain from feeding wildlife. Not only is it illegal in Colorado –  with those in violation being subject to fines – but it is also harmful to the same animals people believe they are trying to help.

“The hardcore truth about feeding wildlife is that it does more harm than good,” said CPW area wildlife manager Adrian Archuleta of Durango. “It can serve to create conflict with humans and can directly lead to the spread of diseases.”

CPW wants those who choose to feed wildlife to know the dangers it presents. It is unnatural to have large numbers of animals congregate at a single place where they know they can obtain food, and a single infected animal can spread diseases through these interactions. 

Areas, where animals are fed, accumulate feces, saliva, and urine that can harbor parasites, bacteria, viruses, and prions that cause chronic wasting disease. Animals that are attracted to the provided food are exposed to the pathogens in the environment and can also spread pathogens directly to each other through “nose-to-nose” contact. Additionally, animals that are already stressed from winter conditions are more susceptible to diseases, making winter feeding particularly dangerous for wildlife health.

Some people are compelled to feed deer in the winter because of what they see as the lack of natural food sources. In fact, deer are best able to survive winter conditions when no additional food is provided. This is because the deer’s digestive system can adjust to gradual changes in food that is available. Deer that are suddenly given food such as corn or birdseed suffer a shock to their digestive system that not only makes it difficult for them to digest their normal diet but can cause acid burns to the stomach from the byproducts of digesting carbohydrates. 

dead deer
A deer bedded down in grass hay in 2017. The hay filled the stomach of the deer, but it died of starvation because the hay lacked adequate nutrition.

Even feeding hay can harm deer. In some cases, deer given grass hay have starved to death with full stomachs because the hay did not provide the balanced nutrition the deer needed. In other cases, deer given alfalfa hay died from bloating when the alfalfa created froth in the stomach. In all cases, the deer would have had a better chance for survival if supplemental food had not been provided. 

CPW wildlife officers in Bayfield recently issued a citation to one resident of the Forest Lakes subdivision who had stored hay in their garage and would regularly open the garage to let deer in to eat.

“It’s always difficult to see the unintentional harm done to these animals,” said CPW wildlife pathologist Karen Fox. “I would like to believe that most people would refrain from feeding wildlife if they knew the harm it could cause.”

Some deer are not expected to survive winter. In a natural system, the most adapted animals will survive and improve the genetics of the herd. In a system with supplemental feeding, the strongest animals will win access to the provided food, and in many cases the animals that die in these feeding situations are the biggest and strongest of the herd. For this reason, providing supplemental food to wildlife can also damage the health of the population. Allowing deer to forage in a natural system is ultimately the best way to sustain the herd.

Video: Feeding Wildlife: Harmful, Not Helpful

A Danger to Public Safety

When animals become habituated to humans, it can also put human safety at risk as they can become demanding and dangerous. CPW has recorded several instances in which artificially fed deer have become aggressive to homeowners or their neighbors.

animals lose fear of humans
Deer that are fed lose their fear of humans and can become demanding and dangerous.

Other wildlife species in Colorado are also subject to harm when illegally fed by humans. In Crested Butte, particularly at Mount Crested Butte, district wildlife managers have had trouble with people feeding foxes. The foxes have then become too comfortable around specific neighborhoods, creating conflict with humans. CPW has also noticed that in areas where fox feeding is common, foxes seem to be more likely to have outbreaks of sarcoptic mange, a parasitic disease that causes severe hair loss and ultimately death.

“I think more often than not, folks think that they are doing something positive by feeding wildlife,” said DWM Philip Gurule out of the Gunnison area. “Ultimately, what they are doing is detrimental to the movements of wildlife and their overall health. In some instances, these animals can even lose their fear of humans, which poses a human health and safety risk. In cases where wildlife breaks into houses or cause harm to humans, those animals have to be euthanized. So by simply not feeding wildlife and keeping them wild, it helps both wildlife and humans alike.”

When large numbers of prey animals are concentrated in an area, large carnivores such as mountain lions may be attracted to the abundance of prey. The main food source for mountain lions in Colorado is mule deer. When deer gather in higher densities in specific areas, it will lure more mountain lions.

Do Your Part

Video: Big Game Don’t Need Our Help In Winter

While some people deliberately feed wildlife, others do so perhaps without realizing it. Most often, unintentional feeding stems from the use of bird feeders in reach of bears and deer.

Those with fruit trees should pay extra attention to pick up any fruit that drops from their trees to avoid deer regularly gathering in their yards. Bears also will take advantage of these same food sources, and that can lead to conflicts between bears and humans.

CPW asks anyone to report incidents of humans feeding wildlife to their local CPW office.

“We need people to hold each other accountable,” Archuleta said. “Please, call your local office and report those who are breaking this law. It doesn’t only protect those in our community but the animals themselves.”

Written by John Livingston. John is the Southwest region public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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