SAM Slams Deer Feeding Rule Proposal

“This rule criminalizes nearly every individual who provides supplemental feed for deer in Maine… the Department has over-reached its legislative authority. 

That very strong statement, from written testimony submitted by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, pretty much says all that needs to be said about deer feeding rules proposed by Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

SAM submitted its testimony today, November 15, the deadline for written comments on the rules proposal. Prepared by DIF&W’s retired deer biologist, Gerry Lavigne, SAM’s testimony is both comprehensive and devastating.

Lavigne absolutely destroys the proposal in a series of sharply pointed questions, raising issues and concerns about all aspects of the proposal, while focusing a lot of his testimony on the list of activities that DIF&W considers detrimental to deer.

As I reported here in September, the Department’s wildlife staff has opposed deer feeding for a long time, but has never had authority to stop it or regulate it in any way.

The legislature gave the department authority to adopt rules to regulate deer feeding earlier this year. Astonishingly, for such a hot topic of great interest statewide, the department did not initially plan to hold a hearing on the rules, and gave the public only a few weeks to comment on the proposal. But after SAM protested, two hearings were scheduled and the public comment period was extended to November 15.

The department’s position on deer feeding is clearly spelled out in the proposal, in the section stating the principle reason for the rule. “The Department discourages the supplemental feeding of deer and other wildlife because it is not beneficial in most situations.”

Given the department’s position on deer feeding, you can assume the broadly written rules will be used to close down most if not all of the state’s deer feeding stations.

It’s in the list of “Activities detrimental to the deer population” where the department lays down the gauntlet, stating that deer feeding is illegal if it causes any of the following:

a)      concentrating deer at greater than natural densities;

b)      providing food that is harmful or of low nutritional value;

c)      increasing direct and indirect contact among individual animals;

d)      increasing deer habituation to humans and detracting from wild behavior and survival responses;

e)      increasing vulnerability to predation;

f)        increasing vulnerability to collisions with vehicles or other mortality risks;

g)      increasing the likelihood of disease transmission within and among individual animals and maintaining endemic disease reservoirs;

h)      causing significant habitat damage in and adjacent to feeding sites.

DIF&W’s wildlife staff has insisted for years that deer feeding results in all of these problems.

SAM’s Testimony

Lavigne raised concerns and questions about each of the “detrimental” activities on the agency’s list. Here’s what he had to say.

“Concentrating deer at greater than natural densities. Deer concentrate at all feeding sites, due to the nature of providing concentrated food sources in limited locations. It would be impractical to distribute supplemental feed as widely as natural browse grows. Has the Department established standards for ‘normal’ wintering density? And will the Department conduct deer density estimates at violation sites that will stand up in court?

“Providing food that is harmful or of low nutritive value. Supplemental foods do vary in quality for deer. But the impact that food has on deer depends on whether other natural forage is available to balance out the deer’s overall forage intake. Will the Department conduct browse availability investigations before deciding a particular feeding site is in violation?

“Increasing direct and indirect contact among individual animals. Again, all feeding sites will be in violation of this provision. Has the Department adopted standards for deer contact frequency? What are ‘normal’ contact rates within deer wintering areas? Isn’t high contact rate only relevant in the presence of a contagious disease?

“Increasing deer habituation to humans and detracting from wild behavior and survival responses. Providing supplemental feed near human activity centers will cause deer to appear tame. Most feeding sites manifest this to some extent. Has the Department established tameness standards? How do you decide when a local deer population is too tame for its own good?

“Increasing vulnerability to predation. While it is true that deer bottled up at feeding stations may have limited escape trail networks, has the Department established standards for allowable predation risk? Will the Department be able to demonstrate that a given feeding site exceeds that risk level?

“Increasing the likelihood of disease transmission within and among individual animals and maintaining endemic disease reservoirs. This is a result of the high densities and increased contact rate activities listed earlier. Most feeding stations will be in violation of provisions a, c, and g, but only in the presence of a contagious disease. Until such a disease emerges in Maine, deer populations are not at risk at feeding stations or in natural deer wintering areas.

“Causing significant habitat damage in and adjacent to feeding sites. This is perhaps the most universally noteworthy aspect of sites where deer are being fed. Deer never restrict themselves solely to the food supplements people provide, even when supplemental food is provided in adequate amounts… Has the department established standards for acceptable browsing damage? How can a deer feeder know when deer browsing has exceeded acceptable limits and the site is now in violation?”

Lavigne did find one of the agency’s concerns to be valid. Here is what he wrote:

“Increasing vulnerability to collisions with vehicles or other mortality risks. This is the only detrimental activity that the Department can and should act upon in rule making. Vehicle collisions can be objectively documents, and in most cases, mitigated. The ‘other mortality risks’ part of this section is nebulous and should be clarified.”

And if that testimony isn’t enough to sink the proposed rules, Lavigne went on, for another page, to tackle the rest of the proposal including a section in which DIFW proposes to shut down any deer feeding site that “creates a public nuisance.”

Lavigne called that wording “vague and entirely subjective,” and said, “It begs the question of whether individual Department officials will apply the nuisance definition uniformly.”

Calling the agency’s rule “a de-facto ban on winter feeding of deer,” Lavigne notes, “This was clearly not the intent of enabling legislation.”

“People who feed deer need to know where they stand with the Department. They deserve clear, objective, predictable rules,” wrote Lavigne. “This rule has the potential to consume a great deal of the Department’s personnel time and financial resources. It will also foster an adversarial relationship between the agency and the public they serve.”

Finally, Lavigne offered a way out. “The department should focus on mitigating vehicle collisions at feeding sites by regulating locations where deer are being fed, and then only if the Department has documented highway collision risk at that site.

“We further recommend that the Department step up its efforts to educate people who feed deer in an effort to minimize deleterious practices. SAM stands ready to expand this education effort, whether in partnership with the Department, or solely with our other outdoor partners,” concluded Lavigne.

The Fish and Wildlife Advisory Council will vote on the deer feeding proposal at the group’s December meeting, unless Commissioner Chandler Woodcock withdraws it before the meeting.

My advice for Chandler: The rule is dead. Withdraw it now. Start over. Take Gerry Lavigne’s advice.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.