Focus on habitat rather than feeding to help deer through winter

MADISON — Wisconsin residents should consider the impacts of wildlife feeding as well as potential alternatives that provide long-term benefits to help wildlife through a cold and snowy winter season.

“People want to see healthy deer on the landscape, but feeding is not the only solution,” said Tim Marien, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife health specialist. “Improving habitat can support deer and many other types of wildlife year-round.”

Even a mild Wisconsin winter can cause concerns for those living alongside deer and other wildlife, but deer and other wildlife commonly seen in Wisconsin adapt both physically and behaviorally to winter weather. Animals with adequate fat reserves and good winter cover are more likely to survive in good condition.

“Deer start preparing for winter during the summer, when nutritious natural food sources are abundant,” said Marien. “When winter arrives, they seek out shelter in stands of pine, cedar and fir that provide cover from snow and wind, and search for winter foods in the vicinity until spring.”

However, some winters can overly stress individual animals, and this can reduce their chances of survival. Especially during hard winters, concerned citizens may turn to feeding to help deer through the winter. While this can benefit individual animals, feeding often occurs on a scale too small to affect the overall condition of the deer herd. Feeding can also have a negative impact on deer, as it draws them out of winter range that offers the best food and cover to help deer conserve energy. Feeding also increases the risk of disease spread and severe digestive issues.

CWD-affected counties

As a reminder, deer feeding is illegal in counties affected by chronic wasting disease. Where it is legal, regulations restrict how much food may be placed and where feeding sites may be placed. Feeding deer is also prohibited when elk and bear are using the site. For a full list of wildlife feeding regulations, visit the DNR website at and search “feeding regulations.”

“Feeding restrictions are in place to protect the health and safety of both humans and wildlife,” said Marien. “In areas where elk and bear are present, feeding can present a safety risk when these animals acclimate to people. Also, elk are susceptible to several diseases that deer carry, which can weaken the elk herds that Wisconsin has been working to grow over the past few decades.”

DNR staff do not recommend feeding deer, and the practice is currently prohibited in CWD-affected counties. For counties where feeding deer is allowed, the department provides guidance for feeding techniques at keyword “deer.” To view current baiting and feeding regulations, search keyword “bait.”

Citizens are encouraged to contact a local DNR wildlife biologist for additional information – contact information can be found at keywords “staff directory” – enter “wildlife biologist” in the subject line.

Improve habitat to help deer through a tough winter

Creating and improving habitat can give deer and other wildlife the resources they need during summer months and sustain them during the winter. Maintaining nutritious natural food sources, like oak, aspen and crabapple provides summer and fall food, while evergreen stands create winter cover and food for deer. Good habitat fulfills the needs of many deer, rather than individuals.

A variety of resources are available to help landowners improve their land for wildlife, including the Deer Management Assistance Program, Young Forest Initiative and the Landowner Incentive Program. More information on these programs and additional publications is available on the DNR website by searching keyword “landowner.”