Nobody wants to see wildlife starve.
Even in mild winters, North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists are asked about feeding wildlife, and sometimes, people don’t want to hear the answer.
Historically, winter feeding of wildlife—big game animals, game birds and songbirds—was once embraced by many wildlife professionals across the country.
Today, the components needed to sustain wildlife through a harsh Midwest winter haven’t changed. Food, water, shelter and space all still are required.
For concerned humans, food and water for wildlife were more easily provided, while cover and space were more time-consuming and costly and thus not considered as easy or economical to put into practice. In fact, many people felt that providing additional winter food would compensate for a general lack of adequate winter cover and space.
Even the mildest of North Dakota winters have periods of extreme cold that threaten some wild animals. Pheasants and even songbirds are found dead with full crops, succumbing to snow and cold even when feeders are full. Over time, it has become evident that more than food was needed to improve winter wildlife survival.
But what you don’t see if you’re not watching all the time is that when deer are drawn out of suitable cover and artificially concentrated around corn piles and alfalfa bales, the natural pecking order keeps needed nutrients from young of the year, which can possibly lead to increased mortality even if adequate feed is provided. The big and strong act like the class bully when the piñata breaks, hording the goodies while the others struggle for even a morsel.
A couple years back, a friend was enjoying the rabbits in his back yard feeding on some scattered grain. Not long after when I asked for a status update, he related the rabbits had shrunk in number, and he figured the reason was a coyote that was taking advantage of his “helping” the rabbits.
This is a good example of a well-intentioned decision that perhaps caused more harm than good, and it helps summarize the current developing theory on feeding: It may be good for an individual or a few animals, but it does little for the overall health of a species and in some cases can actually make things worse.
The bottom line, after years of scrutiny and research, is that natural food plots, with suitable winter cover nearby, is best for wildlife management. In practice, the Game and Fish Department has removed the feeders it once maintained on its wildlife management areas in favor of natural food sources.
At times, in an effort to attract deer away from livestock food supplies, Game and Fish might put out short-term stocks of grain or hay, but again those are specific practices to alleviate depredation by deer and are not intended to improve overall population health.
That comes from a balanced natural mix of food, water, shelter and space. That’s the best recommendation given the research and knowledge we have available.