To feed or not to feed elk – what does science say?
By Mark Hall
Since the East Kootenay Wildlife Association (EKWA) supports science-based wildlife management, we thought it is timely to look at the broader picture of artificial elk feeding programs and see what experts, science and B.C.’s provincial policy say on the matter. You can decide whether artificial feeding is something you support or not.
Winter-feeding of elk in North America started in 1909 at the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming. U.S. feeding programs were established primarily to sustain elk herds whose migration to winter ranges had been severed and to keep elk away from private land. By 1999, the U.S. had 76 feeding sites in five western states and by 2012 the number had been reduced to 46. Growing concerns among U.S. wildlife management agencies over the dangers of disease transmission including bovine brucellosis and more recently, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has led to shifts in state-funded feeding programs.
Facts reported about winter-feeding
Concentrations of glucocorticoid (a stress induced hormone) are reported to be higher in elk at bait stations than in unfed-free ranging elk. Elevated glucocorticoid is known to impair immune systems making elk more susceptible to diseases.
Aggression levels increase in elk fed at bait stations. In a Wyoming study, elk calves and yearlings were the least attended age groups at feed stations. Mule deer compete fiercely for food when it is limited and the strongest healthiest deer will exclude “needy” individuals like fawns from feeding.
Chronic Wasting Disease is fatal to ungulates. From its discovery in Colorado and Wyoming in the 1960s, it has spread across the western states and the prairie provinces. Risks of CWD infection increase the more elk congregate in the same place. CWD can remain infectious in soil for up to 16 years and it can adhere to vegetation including hay. In Manitoba, a CWD infected province, 30 protective fences are built each year around stored hay to reduce contact between ungulates, cattle and hay. As well, in Manitoba deer and elk feeding is prohibited in several management units and stricter regulations banning the use of bait while hunting deer and elk have been introduced.
Biologists in the U.S. use special feed pellets formulated for the complex digestive system of ungulates and to give animals the correct balance of energy and protein they need. Abruptly introducing hay to ungulates that are already suffering from malnutrition can often be fatal. Winter-fed mule deer often die with full stomachs due to their inability to adapt to rapid changes in food. At best, feeding has a limited nutritional benefit, often negated by undesirable, even catastrophic, biological effects.
Even with a specially formulated pelletized feed, the process to successfully feed ungulates is complex. Any shift in foods must happen gradually over weeks to allow gut microbes to adjust. While loss of body fat over the winter is a natural part of the cycle, the additional energy used for diet adjustment can speed up the process of weight loss. Once a diet shift has occurred, feeding must be continued until animals can adjust back to natural foods in the spring. Deer pellets that you buy in stores are among the items you shouldn’t feed to deer or elk. Apples, corn, grain and fruit cannot be effectively digested by ungulates in the winter and these foods can cause death. Dry feeds, like hay, grains or pellets, are designed for domestic livestock and meant to be used with abundant fresh water. Without water, dry feed can impact the digestive tract and kill wild ungulates.
Feed sites cause animals to become habituated to winter-feeding. Habituation can lead to the disruption of normal movement patterns and distribution on the landscape. Using hay can also introduce invasive plants that degrade ecosystems.
In a Montana study conducted during the severe winter of 1996-97, scientists found that elk shifted from digging for grass to living in forested habitat where they consumed almost eight kg of lichen per day, which is almost the total daily food requirement of an adult elk. The emphasis on managing ungulate winter range in the East Kootenay focuses on logging and opening up large tracts of forest so more grass can grow; however, habitat regulations do not specify how much lichen-bearing old growth forest must be retained to support wildlife through severe winters on a herd-by-herd basis.
In a 2007 position statement, the U.S.-based Wildlife Society (biologists and scientists) encouraged the phasing out of feeding wild ungulates by both government and the general public.
B.C.’s provincial policy on feeding wild ungulates states:
“Keep wildlife wild – it is B.C. policy and it makes sense. When humans provide food to wild animals it changes their “wildness”, no matter what species is being fed. There are justifiable reasons to feed wild animals, such as to attract them for capture, but these situations are rare. The consequences of feeding a wild animal unnatural types and amounts of feed can range from mildly irritating behaviour to catastrophic health issues, so understanding the reasons behind this policy is important.
“Wild ungulates benefit when we preserve and restore natural habitats and reduce human-caused disturbances, leaving them alone to conserve their energy to survive severe winter conditions. The best way to help wild ungulates survive in severe weather is to maintain high-quality habitat year-round. If animals enter the winter in good condition, most survive persistent deep snow and cold temperatures. Even in well-functioning natural ecosystems, however, some animals succumb during winter months. This is natural, winter mortality helps keep ungulates populations in balance with the available habitat.”
Supplemental winter-feeding programs, despite some social appeal and acceptance, save very few animals. Inadequate habitat condition and severe winter weather with heavy snow accumulation are the ultimate reason most winter-feeding programs are initiated.
While the B.C. Wildlife Act prohibits feeding dangerous wildlife (bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes) it does not prohibit individuals from feeding ungulates during the winter. B.C. does not have CWD yet there is no regulation restricting the importation of hay from CWD provinces for the purpose of feeding wildlife.
Wildlife management has traditionally been based on the production-consumption model used in agriculture, meaning wildlife management was primarily intended to provide animals for consumers (i.e., hunters). Modern wildlife management is, however, shifting towards more balanced ecosystem management that encourages natural patterns and cycles to occur with less interference from humans.
Final thoughts from the EKWA
People who support winter-feeding do have wildlife’s best interest in mind. Polarizing or demonizing people’s beliefs or public policy is not an effective way for dialogue on this matter to advance. Wildlife belongs to all citizens of the province so everyone, hunters and non-hunters, have an equal right to be heard. EKWA asks that the province increase funding for wildlife management so biologists can properly manage and protect winter range without artificial feeding being an issue.
The focus of wildlife management needs to be on the sustainability of wildlife populations for future generations – not just one season.
What do you want your public wildlife managers to do?
Lead image: Elk feed on hay at Gardiner, Montana. Yellowstone Photo Collection image
– Mark Hall is Vice President of the East Kootenay Wildlife Association