Heavy snowfall in the Gunnison Basin has heightened concern by wildlife managers about feeding of big game. But it’s not the condition of wildlife such as mule deer that’s cause for alarm.
Rather, it’s people attempting to feed animals which they believe are in a state of distress. Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officials say that biggame feeding is not only illegal, but can cause more harm than good.
CPW District Wildlife Manager Brandon Diamond said the practice appears to increase in prevalence during big winters. Heavy snows force deer and elk onto low-lying lands where the animals interface with humans, many of whom think they’re doing the critters a service by providing sustenance.
In and around Gunnison, CPW has seen a variety of artificial food sources utilized — including corn, deer-specific feed and bird food. However, feeding can cause a myriad of problems — from digestive ailments in animals to spread of disease and attracting of predators.
“It seems like it’s a constant battle,” said CPW terrestrial biologist Kevin Blecha of attempts to caution the public against the practice.
Intentional feeding of wildlife even has resulted in criminal charges recently.
Gunnison Police Captain Chris Wilson noted that a case concluded in Municipal Court last week after a homeless man was found to be feeding wildlife in Legion Park late last year.
Wilson said that city leaders first asked Ramin E. Tajaly, 53, to stop feeding the animals after it became apparent that his actions were attracting wildlife to the area.
“He said, ‘No,’” Wilson reported. “God has put him on this earth to feed animals.”
Wilson said he personally talked to the man before a video was captured in which deer were eating corn from Tajaly’s hand. Police then received a call that a dead deer was found in a nearby yard.
Tajaly was convicted and sentenced on March 13 for two separate counts and ordered to pay $220 in fines. If he continues feeding animals, Tajaly could face jail time.
Records show that Tajaly also faces 19 separate counts between two different cases brought by CPW in County Court for feeding wildlife. A court trial is scheduled for April 29. Tajaly was unable to be reached for comment as of press time.
More harm than good
Karen Fox, veterinary pathologist for CPW in Fort Collins, noted that artificial food sources such as bird feed and corn can wreak havoc on a deer’s digestive tract — even leading to the animal dying with a full belly.
“But anything that brings the deer together, I see lots of different bacteria, viruses and parasites that can be at a higher level in deer that are too close together,” she added.
Particularly concerning for CPW and hunters alike is potential for spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which causes weight loss and leads to death in deer and elk. While CWD has not yet been detected in the local game management units, it has been found in neighboring areas.
CPW notes that the disease, which reduces the age at which deer die in the wild, can significantly impact hunter opportunity through a reduction in the number of licenses dolled out as well as the number of mature bucks in a herd. It’s currently not clear whether CWD can affect humans.
However, a study on Colorado’s Front Range has demonstrated residential housing areas are more likely to have deer with CWD — likely a result of greater concentrations of the animals.
Further, terrestrial biologist Blecha noted that artificial concentrations of wildlife caused by feeding can spread disease between species. For instance, cases of avian tuberculosis that have killed urban deer in Gunnison in recent years are suspected to have occurred after the ungulates were fed alongside wild ducks or other birds.
Move away from emergency feeding
While wildlife managers attempt to crack down on unlawful winter feeding, CPW’s Diamond recognizes that the practice may be ingrained in the culture of the area.
On multiple occasions in recent decades, the agency itself has organized emergency feeding programs during harsh winters. Even two years ago, CPW implemented a baiting program in which feed was provided to help lure deer away from busy roadways.
However, multiple studies in recent years have shown the practice of emergency feeding is not as effective as once thought.
“At best, feeding has a limited nutritional benefit, often negated by undesirable, even catastrophic, behavioral and biological effects,” states a report drafted by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and distributed via the website of the Utah-based Mule Deer Foundation.
Just this week, conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to attempt phasing out supplemental elk feeding at Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge over concerns about the spread of CWD.
Diamond noted that oftentimes the public perceives CPW isn’t doing its job when deer appear hungry.
“The animals have evolved to deal with the conditions we see in this valley,” he explained. “(Deer) die every year whether we see it or not. Philosophically, to keep them wild, to keep the herd strong, we have to cope with what we see in these urban wildlife areas.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) staff will meet with the public on March 25 from 6-8 p.m. to discuss big game in the Gunnison Basin. The meeting will be in the north ballroom of the University Center on the Western Colorado University campus.
CPW wildlife managers will present the big-game license recommendations in game management units 54, 55, 551, 66 and 67 for the 2019 hunting seasons. CPW terrestrial biologist Kevin Blecha will talk about the current status of the deer, elk and pronghorn herds in the basin. Blecha also will provide an overview of the various ongoing studies of ungulates in the area.
Hunters and anyone else interested in Gunnison Basin big game are invited to discuss issues and ask questions.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)