Keep your mule deer wild

Wildlife managers remind residents to resist the urge to feed backyard deer this winter

11/20/2023 10:33:30 PM

Cheyenne - Winter is almost upon us and big game animals are moving to lower elevations, which means they may soon descend into our towns and backyards. This year, our backyard visitors may appear thin or hungry — sparking an urge to feed them. Many well-intentioned people feed wildlife under the assumption it will ensure their survival through winter. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department recognizes and appreciates people’s concern about wintering wildlife. However, feeding deer often causes more harm than good for some big game species like mule deer and does not increase their chances of survival. 

Mule deer spend their summers consuming forage and storing energy as body fat for reserves to be used during winter months. As the winter goes on mule deer burn their body fat to survive, which causes their body mass to decrease. This occurs naturally, regardless of available food during winter. 

“It is essential for mule deer to enter the winter in optimum body condition with a lot of body fat,” said Doug Brimeyer, Game and Fish deputy wildlife division chief. “The amount of body fat stored is determined by the quality and quantity of forage consumed during summer and fall.” 

Other factors affect a deer’s ability to put on fat. Pregnant and lactating females have greater energetic demands than males throughout most of the year. But by fall, rutting males require more energy than females. Young-of-the-year put most of their energy towards body growth, storing very little fat for the winter. 

When winters get tough there is an urge to help feed deer with alfalfa, pellets and corn. But suddenly introducing new food to deer can have devastating effects. Like cows, deer are ruminants whose gut microbes gradually adapt to different food sources over the seasons. A mismatch of meals can lead to a high production of lactic acid, which kills healthy bacteria and causes inflammation and ulcers that do not allow the stomach to absorb nutrients. 

“It’s not unusual to see these deer that have been fed die with full stomachs,” Brimeyer said. 

Although urban deer can bring enjoyment to some, it comes with many challenges and conflicts. Feeding a few deer can quickly lead to more animals looking for a handout which encourages wildlife to congregate in yards and lose their fear of humans. This can result in damage to yards, increase conflicts with domestic animals and humans, and attract predatory animals like mountain lions and coyotes. Additionally, concentrating unnaturally high numbers of deer during a stressful time of the year when fat reserves are low can also increase the risk of disease transmission and parasites. 

“We understand the compassion that those who feed deer feel,” Brimeyer said. “But feeding unnatural foods is not what is best for them and can lead to their death or secondary harmful effects.” 

There are better and more helpful ways residents can help mule deer in their area. Here are some things you can do to help wildlife this winter:

  • Pick up your hammocks, soccer nets and tomato cages, and consider placing holiday lights out of reach.
  • Keep your pets confined and/or on a leash and do not allow pets to chase wildlife. Keep your distance and give wildlife plenty of room. 
  • Slow down on roadways for migrating wildlife, especially at dawn and dusk. Plan for added time in your travels.
  • If you have fences, make them wildlife-friendly and open gates wherever possible for easier wildlife movement. 

Many places in Wyoming have feeding ordinances making the intentional feeding of wildlife by private citizens illegal. Check with your city or county for more information. 

To learn more about the harmful effects of feeding, read “Fed to Death” in the Wyoming Wildlife magazine.

(Breanna Ball, Public Information Officer - (

- WGFD -

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