People enjoy wildlife in many ways. Bird-watchers, for example, enjoy observing birds and keeping a list of those seen. Those of us who hunt, crave the more direct connection of gleaning meat from the wild. Still others enjoy the regular contact with wildlife lured close by feeding. Some people relate to wildlife through all these activities.
Artificial feeding of wildlife is a complex issue, rife with contradictions. Feeding songbirds in winter is widely viewed as acceptable and even appropriate. Cardinals, jays and chickadees brighten many winter days for those offering sunflower and suet treats. But, in Pennsylvania at least, artificial feeding of bears and elk is prohibited. Bears habituated to handouts can become a serious nuisance, and elk remain a rare resource in the state, inhabiting only a limited range on the northcentral plateaus. Game Commission officials see benefit in keeping elk as wild as possible, foraging naturally, away from crops and homes.
Feeding deer has always been a “gray area,” somewhere between accepted and forbidden. In the distant past, when wildlife management was a simpler science, feeding deer was actually encouraged by wildlife professionals. In response, sportsmen’s clubs made annual rituals of hauling loads of corn and hay into snowy mountains as well-meaning gestures, to “help” the deer survive winter.
Wildlife managers no longer encourage feeding deer. In fact, the practice has been strongly discouraged for decades. More enlightened views of deer biology revealed that artificial feeding has limited value and can, in fact, be counter-productive.
Still, many people continue to enjoy the frequent and regular visits by deer to piles of apples, corn or commercially available attractants around their homes or camps. Attracting deer—for one reason or another—has become a robust industry in recent years. Pennsylvania Outdoor News, a statewide publication that follows hunting, fishing and wildlife management issues reported that sales of deer feed at Pritts Feed Mill in Mt. Pleasant has increased 20 percent in 10 years.
The legal status of deer-feeding, however, could soon become more clear-cut. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is considering the pros and cons of instituting a ban on feeding deer and could render a decision by next spring. Also reported in Outdoor News, an advisory committee of game and forestry officials, plus representatives of hunting and wildlife-related groups will present the commission with a proposal, that could include a deer-feeding ban, next month. An initial vote on the proposal would likely happen in January, with the final vote in April.
The new urgent concern, of course, is due to disease, especially chronic wasting disease (CWD), which first showed up in the state in 2012, and is now widespread—though still affecting a relatively small number of deer, both wild and captive, throughout Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton and Huntingdon counties in southcentral Pennsylvania. Far-flung cases of CWD have also been confirmed on deer-farms in Lancaster, Adams and Jefferson counties.
Chronic wasting disease is an always fatal neurological condition that can affect deer, elk, moose, and caribou—all members of the deer family. The disease is clinically related to Mad Cow Disease in cattle, causing lesions and “holes” to form in the brain. Infected animals may look entirely normal for many months, but eventually become emaciated, disoriented, and may exhibit a loss of fear of humans. There is no cure, and no way to test a deer for CWD prior to death.
CWD was first identified by scientists in Colorado in 1967 but has spread—often in unpredictable patterns, possibly due to transporting of captive deer—to 23 states and at least two Canadian provinces.
Chronic wasting disease has spurred consideration of a deer-feeding ban because deer spread CWD through direct contact and through exchange of saliva and other body fluids that accumulate around artificial feeding sites. Veterinarians and biologists believe that the denser the concentration of deer, the more likely that infected fluids will be exchanged.
Feeding deer is already banned inside Disease Management Areas, set up by the Game Commission surrounding known CWD confirmations. Disease Management Area 2 is vast, covering much of southcentral Pennsylvania from near Harrisburg, westward to Somerset. Currently, the counties of Fayette, Greene, and Washington contain no part of a Disease Management Area because CWD has not yet been found locally, and hopefully that can remain the case.
A ban on feeding deer is complicated by the simultaneous rise of illegal baiting by hunters. Using artificially placed food to lure game (including deer) for hunting is illegal in Pennsylvania (except for a small region around suburban Philadelphia). But game wardens’ arrest records document that illegal baiting is now one of the most frequent violations they encounter. The fact that baiting deer for hunting is already illegal, yet frequently practiced, poses questions about how the general public will comply with a feeding ban. But wildlife officials all around the country are in a tough spot with this. They know it will be difficult to enforce a feeding ban, but they also need to slow the spread of a disease that carries serious implications for the future of the deer-hunting tradition.
At this time, no evidence exists that CWD can be spread to humans, but officials are increasingly more strident in their cautions to hunters to not consume meat from any deer that appeared sick. Hunters who kill deer within Disease Management Areas can have their deer tested, free of charge, for CWD before they eat the meat. Details of the testing procedure, plus much additional information about CWD, are on the Game Commission’s website: www.pgc.pa.gov
Ben Moyer is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America.