DNR: corn and hay deadly for deer in winter following elk death in Rusk Co.Submitted: 01/13/2020
Story By Stephen Goin

DNR: corn and hay deadly for deer in winter following elk death in Rusk Co.
RHINELANDER - Watching wildlife struggle during the winter is part of life in Northern Wisconsin. 

"It's hard to watch deer walking around, and they look kind of thin and scraggly - especially in February," said Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologists Jeremy Holtz. 

It is still illegal to feed deer in a majority of Wisconsin counties including Oneida, Marathon, Portage, Vilas, Forest, Langlade, Wood and Lincoln counties. Holtz said the bait and feed ban was put in place in 2016 to lower the risk of deer spreading chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Farmers Feed Store owner Kelly Ramker said the bait and feed ban negatively impacts her business and frustrates many of her customers.

"My business was hurt, especially that first year," said Ramker."They've got all these wild animals that can't find food and their faced with a dilemma of not being allowed to feed them."

Holtz said the recent death of an elk in Rusk Co. could show people other reasons why feeding deer is dangerous.

On Jan. 2, an elk was found dead after a landowner put out corn for the animal to eat. The DNR called the move a "misguided attempted" to help wildlife.

"If you feed them the wrong food at the wrong time, you'll actually kill them," said Holtz.

According to DNR deer and elk expert Kevin Wallenfang, the animal died from rumen acidosis. The condition affects elk and deer when their diet's change rapidly. In the winter, deer are less active and access body fat reserves to stay alive. According to the DNR, naturally found foods are less nutritious and less abundant in the winter than in the summer.

According to the DNR, the rich starch content of corn can make it harder for deer to digest food properly in the winter. Holtz says hay can also be difficult for deer to digest in the winter.

Feeding deer and elk is legal in many Wisconsin communities including Rusk, Price, Ashland and Iron counties. However, Holtz warns death is not the only unintended consequence of feeding deer; nutrient overdose is another concern. An overdose of nutrients can cause a condition called slipper foot where deer hooves grow faster than the animal can naturally grind them down.

"If it is legal, you should put out foods that are going to help the animal, not kill them," said Holtz.

Instead of corn and hay, Holtz explains that deer food mixes and oats are better feed alternatives.

Ramker says she'll continue to sell both deer food mix and oats, but she typically doesn't ask her customers where and how they plan to use it.

"I think in some way shape of form there should be a blind eye when it comes to the winter months," said Ramker. "What they do with it when they leave here isn't my business."

Find a list of additional state regulations regarding deer feeding here.

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