Getting through a Maine winter is a challenge for all critters.

For Maine’s whitetail deer, it is the crucible they bear. Coyotes corner them and take them down in the deep snow. Forage is scarce. They must often get by on twigs, cedar bark, broken tops and litter fall. Then there is the unrelenting cold and bitter winds that take a toll. Biologists tell us that the deer’s survival is a very slender thread, dependent upon how much body fat they can build up before yarding up and the timing of the spring green-up.

It is no wonder that so many Mainers, feeling sorry for the struggling deer, decide to feed wintering deer. For as many years as I can remember, well-meaning people throughout the state have been feeding deer despite official admonitions from state deer biologists not to do so. Until recently, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W) has sought to discourage the backyard feeding of deer. MDIF&W has science on its side. Because of a deer’s multiple stomachs and complex digestive system, the wrong feeding program can do more harm than good. The other problem is that backyard winter feed programs for deer often result in more deer-car collisions. Additionally, if deer hang around backyards in groups waiting for the feed bag, they become easy prey for coyotes.

Times are changing, however. Every once in awhile, public behavior influences state policy. Apparently, MDIF&W has decided that if people insist on feeding wintering deer then, as guardians of the resource, we (MDIF&W) better instruct on how best to do it. MDIF&W has teamed up with the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and produced an instructional video on how best to feed wintering deer.

SAM’s deer man, Gerry Lavigne, formerly a career wildlife biologist with MDIF&W, has written a column on proper deer feeding for the February issue of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. Here are some key excerpts from his article on feeding wintering deer:

1 .There is a small army of people engaged in winter feeding of deer in every corner of the state. No one has solid estimates of the number of deer feeders, but the practice appears to be increasing in popularity, particularly since the Maine deer herd started its precipitous decline 4 years ago. Whether or not winter feeding improves deer nutrition and survival depends on which types and amounts of supplemental feed are used, as well as where and how they are fed.

2. Consuming too much grain at one time can kill a deer in a matter of hours.

3. Sunflower hulls are lethal for deer, when ingested in quantity. There is a chemical compound in the hull that kills the microbes in a deer’s paunch, leading to its demise.

4. Feed twice daily. Put out all the deer can eat, and then some . Avoid feeding hay to white-tails during winter. It’s not worth it to you, and it may be lethal to them.

5. If you choose to feed deer in winter, start feeding early on, introduce foods gradually, don’t change feeds abruptly, and stick with the program until spring green-up.

6. With a cost of about $15 a bag, you need to commit about $570 to the feeding effort, not counting transportation costs. Any lesser financial commitment risks under-feeding deer that have become dependent on your largess. Now expand that cost analysis to situations with substantially more deer. There are places in Maine where herds of 200 or more deer are being fed each winter. One hundred days of feed for 200 deer would require 30 tons of feed at a cost of at least $15,000.

For more information on deer feeding issues, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) has produced a brochure on the subject. You can get it online at: www.mefishwildlife.com, or by calling (207)287-8000. In addition, MDIFW and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine are co-producing a DVD all about winter feeding of deer. It will be available in early February. Detailed information about various feeds formulated specifically for deer can be found at your local livestock feed store.

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The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”

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