August 9, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
A Few Notes Concerning Feeding Wildlife
by Ken Wolff, Condon
Before the rocks get too big over this seemingly sensitive issue, I would offer a perspective or two.
A. Feeding or attracting big game animals in this state is illegal.
B. It is also unethical and immoral.
C. Feeding birds in this state is legal, ethical, and moral.
When one puts out hay or grain for the deer, in the wintertime especially, it is usually done with a kindness of heart and spirit, as if "in the best interest of the animals." Oddly, it turns out maybe not.
By attracting deer to one's yard, it also attracts the things that eat deer. In this neighborhood, those things are called mountain lions. Lions eat deer, Fido and small children. "Oh my God, there's a mountain lion in my yard." You did that all by yourself, and now a mountain lion dies needlessly. What about your neighbor's child? Not my kid, not my worry?
Feeding deer may attract them from the other side of the highway. Locally, I know who feeds deer or not, by the number of road-killed deer I pick up at certain crossings. One can easily conclude that feeding deer kills more than it helps locally.
Leftover grain from feeding deer in the wintertime will attract bears in the spring. (Note: I did not say "might attract;" I said "will attract.") Since bears can smell old grain for miles, which translates as 'easy eats,' it will often attract bears from the other side of the highway; which one summer left me to either execute or disarticulate seven black bears locally during one month a few years ago. The bears ranged in size from about 15 pounds to about 300 pounds. The fifteen pounder was "flat as a pancake." I don't think it is written anywhere that a mother bear has babies specifically so they can get squished on the highway. I don't think bears endure breeding for this purpose at all; I doubt little passion in the process.
When either an elk or deer or bear gets hit by a car, the collision usually shatters the animals' pelvis, causing the animal to drag itself off using front legs only - the lucky ones get found and shot. I say that, as having butchered over 2000 road-killed animals (elk, deer, bears) to feed the eagles in my care. However, these crippled and suffering deer make easier work for mountain lions. Lions need our help to catch deer now?
The folks living along the highway who feed deer actually do me a big favor, and save the Raptor Center thousands on the food bill every year. But, in all honesty, I am really tired of butchering dead animals that should not have to die the way they do. (My record, by the way, is to have a dead deer into the freezer in four minutes flat.)
Not all deer are supposed to live through the winter - not the intent of either Mother Nature or God. And especially during these years of easy winters, too many are surviving. A certain percentage of all species die before age one. They are supposed to. Some bird species have a first-year mortality rate of 90 percent. The more deer we have, the more lions we have, then the deer eat all their forage, causing both populations to plummet as they both starve off. Deer and lions have been doing fine locally for about 7000 years without our help. If you truly care for deer, please do not feed or attract them.
However, for the system to stay in balance even the maggots have to eat.
Now how about attracting and feeding birds? Birds have been doing fine for thousands of years without us, no? Owl fossils recovered in Wyoming date back 60 million years.
Recent studies show many songbird populations, especially the migratory ones, dropping tremendously. Studies show that wintertime feeding birds may help some survive. Yes, we humans are the cause of the declines in bird populations - both at summer and winter habitats and every inch in between. The Sears Tower in Chicago kills 25,000 birds annually (hitting it at night during migrations - many songbird species migrate at night, in flocks thick enough to be detected by radar). Thousands of Swainson's hawks were poisoned in Argentina with a grasshopper poison one winter a few years ago - a hawk that eats mice in Montana in the summer, and grasshoppers in the winter in Argentina. We humans are 'doing a job' on migratory birds, killing them faster than we're helping them.
So why is it OK to feed birds around here? Because birds fly. Because we owe them. Because it is legal. Because it is enjoyable to watch. Because it helps, not hurts. And no, it is not possible to keep hummingbirds from migrating by feeding late in the year. One unexpected bonus to feeding birds is to be able to see the occasional pygmy owl swoop in and grab one of your chickadees. This is called "feeding birds to feed birds." This is the way it is, out there in the real world. Or maybe a sharp-shinned hawk just sort of explodes at the feeder, and flies off with one of your grosbeaks. Feel extremely privileged to see such a marvel.
Wildlife is neither "good" nor "bad." Wildlife just is. Wildlife does best left wild. With a little consideration on our part, along with a true understanding of and an appreciation for, we can co-exist. This is possible without feeding any wild species. I put up bird feeders and birdhouses to help mitigate for the bird habitat I destroyed by my very being here. Since we manage the weeds and underbrush on our place, we had 14 head of elk visit here this spring; and deer wander through just about every day. We sort of feed deer because this place grows nice grass, and we are surrounded on three sides by knapweed. Without hay, without grain, but with a seven foot fence to keep them out of the back yard. Just by trying to blend into the neighborhood. You? The neighborhood was here longer than you or I (I've been in this one since the 1940s), and it is our obligation to blend in as unobtrusively as we can.