Members of the public are being asked to carefully consider the risks of starting a winter feeding program for wild ungulates. Ungulates are hoofed mammals and include elk, moose, deer and sheep.
Decades of scientific research have shown that winter feeding programs can have serious negative consequences for ungulates. Ungulates, as ruminants, have food requirements that vary seasonally. It takes weeks for the bacteria in their digestive tract to adapt to changes in diet. A sudden shift from natural winter forage to supplemental feed can result in sickness or death.
Other risks of supplemental winter feeding include increased conflicts with communities, damage to important winter habitat, and higher risk of parasite and disease transmission. In addition, high densities of ungulates at feeding sites attract predators, which can increase ungulate mortality and human-predator conflicts.
Wildlife managers must carefully weigh the pros and cons before implementing a wild ungulate feeding program. Clear criteria must be met prior to feeding (e.g., critical snow depths, poor ungulate body condition) and programs should address specific management objectives, such as drawing animals away from agricultural areas and roadways. Any benefits of these programs are typically small-scale and have little impact on overall wildlife populations.
Protecting and enhancing natural habitats and avoiding disturbance during winter are better ways to ensure the long-term sustainability of ungulate populations. Animals that enter the winter in good condition, due to abundant summer and autumn forage, are more likely to survive a severe winter.
Even in well-functioning ecosystems, some animals die during winter. This is natural and keeps ungulate populations in balance with their available habitat.