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Combatting the Problem of Deer Starvation

Every year, thousands of deer die in the US from starvation. This usually happens during the winter, when there is less food and is commonly referred to as “winter-kill”. It should be remembered that the animals aren’t dying from the cold, they are dying from starvation, which is a particularly cruel and drawn-out way to die. Can anything be done about it?

Some people have suggested air-lifting hay into the backcountry so the deer will have something to eat. Although this is extremely expensive, it has been done, with tremendously bad results. Here is why.

Deer eat primarily grasses, leaves, and forbs or weeds. Like other ruminants like cattle, deer can’t digest the grasses and plants directly. They require bacteria in their stomachs that first break down the tough plant material. That bacteria only builds up if the deer are eating a particular kind of food.

The deer in the backcountry, which are the ones most apt to succumb to winter starvation, have never eaten hay. They don’t come across it in the wild. This means that they don’t have the bacteria to break down the hay in order to digest it. While they will readily eat the hay, particularly if they are starving, they will starve to death with full bellies. 

It would be similar to feeding a starving human sawdust. The person would still starve since the sawdust can’t be digested by a human, though their stomachs would be full.

The airlift idea was actually tried, as mentioned. Many decades ago, a large herd of deer was trapped in the high country of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. Well-meaning people decided to take several tons of hay, by helicopter, and drop it where the deer could get to it. It cost a lot of money and effort, but they took the hay to the trapped deer. The deer, having never eaten hay, happily ate it, filling their bellies. However, since they didn’t have the bacteria needed to digest the hay, the herd was wiped out from starvation.

Some states have experimented with darting the does with chemicals that basically render them sterile. This is also not a viable solution because it is even more expensive than airlifting hay and because it is virtually impossible to dart enough does to make a difference in the population. There also wouldn’t be a way to tell which deer had been darted already and which hadn’t been.

Only one method tried so far has had at least limited success. A couple of decades ago, forest fires raged through the Ruby Mountains in Nevada. That forest was the prime wintering grounds for a huge population of deer. The problem is that the fire destroyed most of the winter forage for the animals. There was no doubt at all that the winter-kill would be extremely high. It was projected that 75% of the deer would die of starvation; several thousand deer.

With unusual brilliance, the Nevada Department of Fish and Game instituted an emergency secondary hunt. Deer season had just ended, but the department issued new tags for any hunter who wanted one, even if they’d already bagged a deer that year. A few hundred deer were taken in the secondary hunt.

That isn’t a lot of deer compared to the number of deer that used that wintering grounds, but it worked. When the winter-kill figures were tabulated, it was found that only about 10% of those deer died from starvation, though the winter was long and harsh. 

In other words, the only method that has been found to help with deer starvation has been hunting. Lowering the number of deer in a given area has proven results that are better for the deer, other animals, the ecosystem, and ultimately for humans.

  • Question of

    Did you know that deer can’t digest hay if they haven’t been eating hay all along?

    • Yes
    • No
  • Question of

    Does the above help you to appreciate the role of hunters in helping deer and the environment?

    • Yes
    • No
    • I already appreciate the role that deer hunters play
    • I not only appreciate deer hunters, I have hunted deer

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What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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20 Comments

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  1. It is a sad reality, kill the predators because they scare humans. Suddenly the other animals (prey) don’t have anything to fear. their population explodes and we have the problem we have now.

    There are so many deer in Maryland now, that hunters are allowed to take 2 does. That is the first time in many years that was allowed.

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    • People are unfortunately rather short-sighted and refuse to see the big picture, even when it slaps them in the face. It isn’t just deer populations that have exploded by killing off the natural predators. The number of predators is on the increase, but they are still killed outright in many areas, even if they’ve posed no threat to people.

      There are many states that have the deer population problem. Hats off to Maryland for actually taking rational steps to deal with it.

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        • Venison also makes wonderful spaghetti, meatloaf, and even hamburgers, though usually, something needs to be added to the ground venison to hold it together for hamburgers since it is so lean. I also love venison stew. Okay, I’ll admit that venison is my favorite meat, by a large measure.

          We periodically have an explosion of hares rather than rabbits. Specifically, every 7-9 years, there are suddenly snowshoe hares all over the place. In those years, we also have an abundance of Canadian lynxes, which take care of the hare over-population. Lynxes get surprisingly big and 40 pounds isn’t unusual, yet people don’t seem to freak out when we have a lot of lynxes, yet they do if we have a lot of cougars.

          I expect that the hunting laws in Maryland will help with the deer overpopulation problem, though it might take a number of years before the results will be noticeable. If they instituted the same laws in Montana, that would most likely increase the yearly harvest from 4,000 to 6,000 or possibly 8,000. If 8,000 were taken per year, the population of deer here would be kept in balance. It wouldn’t drop the number of deer, but it would prevent it from increasing.

          Question; is that 2 does in addition to a buck or just 2 does per hunter?

          I just got done chasing a deer out of my garden and the whole time I was doing it, I was thinking about how great she’d look cut and wrapped and in my freezer.

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        • Interesting. At least they do allow antlerless hunting. Still, I was thinking that Maryland had some really good sense for allowing enough deer to be taken to actually make a difference in the population. It sounds like your laws aren’t especially different than ours.

          I’d be in favor of a bag limit of one buck and two does per year, per hunter. Even with that, it would take a while to get the population contained. It would be a step in the right direction, though.

          What a lot of non-hunting people don’t understand is that having a license and tag doesn’t guarantee that a person will get a deer. I’d guess that about an average of only 1 in 8 licensed hunters actually get their deer.

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          • I think based on the areas where you can take 10 total for a year, in Maryland that they are more focused on avoiding populated areas.

            The deer are smart enough to move closer to humans!

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        • I’d say that is quite true. The biggest buck I’ve seen in the last 5 years was a beautiful 4 x 4 point that was standing beside the road about a block from home…in town. It was also during hunting season, so it knew that town was the safest place for it to be.

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    • In a way, they are at that. Hunters perform a valuable service that most of them don’t even realize the importance of. That is one of the first thoughts that go through my mind when I hear of a major forest fire; how is it going to impact the wildlife in that forest?

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    • Most of the problem came from people killing off the key apex predators, primarily bears, cougars, and wolves. The fears people have for these creatures is understandable, but when the predators are removed, there is nothing to prevent the deer from overpopulating. That puts people in the position where they must do what the predators would have done, had they not been killed in large numbers.

      People killed off so many predators, without even a thought of the consequences. In many places, that is still the reaction to a sighting of one of the apex predators, “Kill it!”

    • The elk have the same problem, though not as bad because the number is much smaller. Still, I wanted to give the idea of the reasons herds can be stranded. If the elk are having this much problem with snow, it is much worse for mule or white-tail deer.

  2. In some cases it is possible that this pleasure can turn to dismay as one type of wildlife begins to overshadow the others, resulting in an imbalance of the species. This happens when deer populations get out of hand and begin to affect both the environment and the other animals living in the area.

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