In the Oregon Outback wildlife is abundant, whether out in the country or in the middle of busy town streets. While mule deer in particular commonly make themselves at home in Lake County communities, leaving food out is leading to the spread of disease and death among deer populations.
While it may at first thought be a good deed to leave food out for deer, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Jon Muir, that action by some residents is what is ultimately negatively affecting them.
“I want to encourage people to really think hard about what they are doing with these deer, recognize that while they do appear at times in winter to be skinny or unhealthy, that is the result of what they are eating,” said Muir. “They are not helped by being fed, in fact that is largely what is killing them.”
Mule deer digestive systems are built specifically to feed primarily on woody browse, a difficult brand of forage to digest that requires a specific collection of microbes to break down in the gut. When mule deer eat other things such as alfalfa, seed, or leftover foods left outside that have levels of high fructose corn syrup and other chemicals, it can kill that specific set of microbes key to a deer’s diet, making the animal no longer capable of absorbing the food they eat. As a result, their bodies, incapable of gaining sustenance, die of starvation regardless of if their bellies are full or not.
“By feeding them, people are actually starving them,” said Muir. “This tends to lead to a weak population that is more susceptible to disease, so we see more cases of blue tongue and other hemorrhagic diseases, and some interesting things that we don’t normally see in wild populations of these deer.”
Providing ample food for deer in residential areas has an additional negative impact of habituating deer populations to no longer fear humans, pets or typical city noises. This can lead to deer becoming a threat to people, particularly in the spring if does feel as though their fawns are being threatened, or in the fall when bucks turn aggressive.
“Every year we see pets that are killed or severely injured, we see elderly folks and children who are hurt or otherwise have a bad encounter with the front hooves of a mule deer,” added Muir. “So for every deer that gets fed and stays in town getting habituated to it, we see that animal ultimately impact other residents in the community in a negative way.”
It also negatively impacts businesses, particularly those that cater to agriculture and gardening, and the rise of deer in close proximity to human activity can draw natural deer predators closer to the area.
“It is absolutely horrid for the deer themselves, even if you feel like you are doing a good thing by feeding them, it is actually killing them,” added Muir. “It is creating all kinds of opportunity for disease to be taken back to herds in the Warners.”
While ODFW is concerned about the issue of deer in cities, recent action undertaken by the Oregon Legislature limits ODFW’s authority. According to Muir, the State of Oregon has determined that urban deer are the authority of the respective town and county governments with no jurisdiction granted to ODFW.
“It is up to them to determine if this is an action they want to take on, I may have a role to play in facilitating any actions, but it is up to the community,” said Muir. “Half the town loves them and doesn’t want to see the deer leave, and half are tired of their gardens being eaten. If folks are frustrated, that voice belongs in town council meetings and at the community level, the state has no authority beyond what the community decides to do.”