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Feeding Montana wildlife can do more harm than good

The dangers of feeding certain wildlife
Mule Deer (MTN News file photo)
Posted at 1:01 PM, Jan 19, 2023

HELENA - Feeding certain wildlife such as deer, elk, and moose is illegal in Montana.

MTN took a deeper look into why those laws are in place, and learned that they are there to protect you as much as they are to protect wildlife.

“They are built to survive here. Their gut is set up to use the natural food sources that are available. So, while, you know, folks are probably well-intentioned in trying to provide them other food sources, oftentimes those do more harm than good,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Wildlife Veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey.

Feeding wildlife or unintentionally allowing access to garbage and feed can lead to a multitude of problems.

The unnatural gathering of so many cervids — the scientific name for members of the deer family — can lead to diseases like chronic wasting disease (CWD), a fatal neurological disease.

Feeding wildlife can also habituate them to the presence of people, causing possible injury or death for animals and humans. Additionally, these deer or elk can attract predators such as bears or mountain lions.

But there’s even more reason to not feed wildlife.

“These unnatural food sources that animals have not adapted to, they're not part of their natural diet. They basically cause an imbalance in the normal bacteria that are in their rumen. And, that, it sets them up for kind of a cascade of problems that can be fatal or chronic in nature,” said Ramsey.

Feeding big game animals in the winter can cause serious harm to the animal. During the winter, the microbes in the guts of these animals change in order to process high-fiber materials such as twigs.

During this time, high-carb foods like corn or birdseed can lead to acidosis, a reaction of stomach bacteria that produce lactic acid. This kills healthy bacteria and leads to inflammation and ulcers. When inflamed the stomach wall can’t absorb nutrients. Thus, the animal can quite literally starve to death with a full stomach.

So, the best thing you can do is leave wildlife alone and do your best to keep food and garbage away from them.

“Limiting their access any way you can, cleaning up spilled grains and things like that, not throwing out fruits for them to eat intentionally, having, you know, just keeping garbage and things like that cleaned up,” said Ramsey.

Those worried about their bird feeders, don't worry. Songbirds are exempt from the state law prohibiting feeding wildlife.

So, this winter, keep your bird feeders up high and admire the wildlife from afar.