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Love Them, But Leave Them Wild

Look at how thin the deer are this winter! There are a few coming toward the house… some apples won’t hurt them, right? Wrong! 

While it may seem like you are doing the slender deer or scrawny squirrel in your backyard a favor by offering them food, it may actually be hurting them. Many people enjoy feeding wildlife because they believe they’re helping them or because it lets them get up close and personal. Unfortunately, these reasons can be detrimental to an animal’s health and even an entire ecosystem. 

Let Nature Take its Course

You may have observed animals that look “too thin” during the colder months. It can be challenging not to feel guilty if you see an animal you believe is struggling. However, most wildlife species have adapted to dietary changes during winter. For example, deer transition from a high-carb leafy diet in the summer to a low-carb browse diet, consisting of shrubs and dried vegetation, in the winter. They spend the summer building up fat and begin to burn these fat reserves come winter. This is a natural process, and so is losing weight during the colder months. Over the years, wild animals have adapted to switching dietary sources each season.

Wildlife has (hopefully) not become accustomed to unnatural food sources from humans. Inconsistency in their diets can lead to inflammation, ulcers, and digestive diseases. Certain “human” foods can cause healthy stomach bacteria to die off, making an animal unable to absorb essential nutrients. An animal may look healthy and even feel full but may actually be starving due to malabsorption. Offering wildlife “human” foods such as corn, grains, or apples might seem like a healthy snack, but it, unfortunately, could lead to the creature’s death. 

Food Conditioning

If you’ve hiked to Lava Lake lately, you probably noticed the adorable, seemingly “trained” squirrels that hop up to your feet in search of food. These squirrels have been “food-conditioned” by humans that offer them snacks. Animals like these squirrels can lose their fear of humans when they get used to eating our food. Critters in the wild may walk right up to you in hopes of another bite of a Nature Valley granola bar or an apple slice. By giving in to these food-conditioned animals, they become more dependent on human food and stop hunting or foraging as they should naturally.

Additionally, when food is left out in urban areas, it may draw larger animals to places they should not be (remember the moose that strolled through the Target parking lot last year?!) Animals found in the wild-urban interface are sometimes mistaken as aggressive and may ultimately be put down for that behavior. Feeding big game animals is illegal in Montana; the best way to protect these precious creatures is by letting them find their own food naturally.

Disease Transmission: Not Just Another Case of CWD

Typically, diseases spread more rapidly and abundantly in animal populations fed by humans. For instance, birds may contract avian conjunctivitis through uncleaned bird feeders. Although Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have advised against feeding birds for the past three years, if you do choose to leave out a bird feeder, remember to disinfect it every two weeks. Not only can humans unintentionally transfer disease to wildlife, but they also carry diseases that can rapidly spread to humans. Animals can carry diseases such as rabies, hantavirus, and salmonella.

How Can You Help? Keep Wildlife ‘Wild’

Now you may wonder how to help wild animals if feeding them is frowned upon. There are many ways you can protect wildlife in our area:

  • Never feed wild animals
  • Plant species native to Montana for foraging animals
  • Store food and trash correctly, whether at home or in the backcountry
  • Keep a safe distance when viewing wildlife

While it may seem like human nature to want to help animals by feeding them, show them you love them by leaving them wild.

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