It’s not uncommon during a hard winter or following a winter storm to speak with hunting enthusiasts and landowners who express concern about the ability of deer to survive until spring without supplemental feed. Harsh winter weather is hard on wildlife. Heck, it’s hard on people.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has prohibited supplemental feeding of deer or moose since 2003 in response to the threat of Chronic Wasting Disease. But private forest landowners who want to help deer survive should consider including deer habitat management as part of their overall plan.
Deer decrease their activity in winter to reduce the amount of food that they will require. They gather in areas that provide adequate cover and protection from deep snow where at least some natural food is available. And they rely on stored body fat for as much as a third of their winter energy requirements. They lose weight because of this. It’s normal and natural.
In years when mast trees such as oaks or beech have produced an abundance of nuts, deer will seek out those high-energy foods in early fall, often remaining in areas where they can be found and pawing through as much as a foot of snow. As the deep snow and extreme cold set in, however, they are forced to seek cover.
Deer prefer sheltered areas close to shrubs and sapling trees that provide high-quality browse. But, when big buds and nourishing twig ends are unavailable, they will resort to eating dry leaves, needles and bark; often described as starvation foods because they provide little nutrition.
A preferred overwintering site will consist of a mixture of mature conifers, some aspects and deciduous openings. By making certain that deer have sheltered areas that offer a sufficient diet, you help ensure their ability to survive and the likelihood of does to produce healthy fawns.