The extended cold temperatures and increased snowfall in Kodiak may cause high die-offs in Kodiak’s deer population, according to Nate Svoboda, Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist.
Kodiak’s population of Sitka black-tailed deer fluctuates depending on the weather, ranging from around 30,000 to 70,000. Harsh winters can kill up to half the island’s population in a single year, Svoboda said.
“As Kodiak residents notice these impacts, many people are wondering what they can do to help the deer survive,” Svoboda wrote in a statement. “Although it would be nice to attempt to save deer by supplemental feeding, experience throughout North America has proven that such programs are rarely successful.”
Svoboda urged Kodiak residents to refrain from feeding deer, noting that feeding deer is illegal in Alaska and subject to a $100 fine per violation.
The Department of Fish and Game believes more deer die of hypothermia than from starvation. By feeding deer, people can disrupt the natural processes by which they conserve energy and adapt to the scarce food sources.
In winter, deer survive primarily by conserving energy, not by eating more food, Svoboda wrote. Research has shown that deer reduce their food intake during the winter even when they have an unlimited amount of food available. Their systems slow down just like denning bears do, to a lesser degree.
When humans feed deer, it can cause “digestive complications” for the animals, Svoboda said.
Deer, like cattle, have four stomachs. Most of their digestion is accomplished by bacteria that break down the plants they eat. It takes two to three weeks for deer to switch over from digesting one type of feed to another. In wild situations this is not a major concern because the deer gradually switch food sources, but when a deer is offered food like hay, alfalfa, corn or other types of non-natural food, they will eat it, but be unable to process it properly, Svoboda said.
If deer survive the initial impact on their system when they convert to a new food source, they will then be dependent on that food for the rest of the winter. When deer are concentrated in area where supplemental food is available, they lose their natural wariness of people and other animals.
“Although we do not have many natural predators of deer around Kodiak, loose dogs can decimate a deer herd if the deer are concentrated in one area,” Svoboda wrote, adding that is it important to keep dogs on a leash.
“Dog owners sometimes have a hard time coming to grips that their sleepy couch potato house pet is a deer killer. But when a dog’s eyes lock onto a deer, its natural predatory instincts kick in and that deer becomes potential prey,” the Department of Fish and Game wrote in a notice to the Kodiak public.
“This story most often plays out during the winter months when deer are driven down to lower elevations and are conserving their energy,” the department warned. “Dogs rarely kill deer cleanly. They often chase and harass them until they die of exhaustion or hypothermia. Sometimes, deer can suffer for hours or days before they die.”
According to state law, whenever a dog habitually annoys or bites a deer, “any person may lawfully kill the dog, when at large.” If the owner of the dog is reasonably identifiable, the owner shall be notified and given reasonable opportunity to restrain the dog before it is lawful to kill it. Law enforcement officers are authorized to enforce this regulation.
An owner of a deer-killing dog may be fined by the state of Alaska for the value of the deer, $400, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Borough regulations also require dogs to be leashed or under direct control of the owner.
“By keeping your dog on a leash or in direct control, you are helping to protect our deer during this critical time of the year. The rewards down the road will be a healthy deer population that all can enjoy,” the Department of Fish and Game wrote.
Svoboda urged community members to avoid stressing deer, not only by keeping dogs tethered, but also by staying away from deer whenever possible.
“Photographers, skiers, snowmachiners and other outdoor enthusiasts, including people who want to help deer, should do everything they can to stay as far away from the deer as possible,” Svoboda wrote. Deer will naturally find areas that allow them to stay out of the wind and move through the snow easily, such as spruce groves and beaches. “We should respect those areas and avoid them if we see deer or deer tracks near them,” he said.
Svoboda noted that deer often concentrate near plowed areas like roads and bike trails when the snow gets deep, so it is important to watch out for them while driving.
For people who want to protect local deer, Svoboda said the only way to help, other than leaving them alone, is to improve their access to natural food sources. In the winter, these include the bark of shrubs like elderberry, mountain ash and willow, along with seaweed. Deer may also eat non-native trees and shrubs found in residential yards. Trails to these food sources can be improved as long as doing so does not harass deer or attract deer to dangerous areas such as roadsides.
If natural foods are buried in deep snow, it may be possible to cut shrubs and move them to places deer can get them. Residents should seek landowners’ permission before spreading natural food sources on their property.