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Danny Chan La, Deseret Morning News

HUNTSVILLE — Deer in four Utah counties started getting some relief this week, albeit limited to isolated groups and not likely to be of much benefit to fawns.

Biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have been closely monitoring Utah herds in light of record snowfall and below-normal temperatures.

Late Friday, the DWR set into motion its emergency deer feeding program in parts of Cache, Weber, Morgan and Summit counties.

"The storm on Friday was too much, based on what was already on the ground," said Phil Douglass, outreach coordinator for the DWR. "At that point we had the materials and were prepared to move. These are critical times for deer."

The division began calling on its volunteers, and before the weekend was over, feeding stations in those counties were open.

Over the weekend, said Mike Laughter, president of the Utah Mule Deer Foundation, his group of volunteers moved more than nine tons of feeding pellets and corn to select feeding locations.

"What we looked for were approved sites where deer spend the winter, sites where they were presently holding," he said.

"The public is generally concerned about three or four deer in their neighborhoods. We went after the masses. We're trying to save the majority of deer that are in areas where the snow levels will not allow them to utilize what food sources are available. We focused on what are historic wintering areas."

Upward of 200 deer were seen at some of the northern sites this week.

Feeding deer is sometimes not a solution but more of a threat to deer, which is why the DWR addresses the program cautiously.

Deer have a very complex digestive system, and a change in diet requires a period of adjustment. During this adjustment period, deer have been known to starve to death with their stomachs full of food. And while it takes time to adjust to a new diet, it also takes time to switch from that diet back to natural foods.

Feeding needs to begin before deer are in critical condition in order to allow for the time it takes to adjust. It all has to be carefully planned.

"Even our feeding routine is planned," said Douglass. "We feed in the afternoon and evening and usually select feeding areas near trees and vegetation, so after they eat they can take advantage of what little warmth comes from the vegetation to help them through the night.

"During the day they can go up and take advantage of whatever natural browse is available. That's what I saw the deer doing."

Luckily, Utah deer had plenty to eat over the summer and went into winter in excellent condition, which means the adults can usually survive 30 to 60 days of severe weather.

The most vulnerable to the deep snow and cold temperatures are the young of the year — fawns. They simply can't compete with the older deer.

Douglass pointed out that losing fawns is not unexpected. "In fact, some winters we can lose between 20 to 80 percent of the fawns in this region."

Realizing the loss of fawns is inevitable, the emergency feeding program is intended to save the adults in order to try to keep a strong population going into the next season.

By the end of the week, Laughter said he expects to have all the feeding stations in the Ogden Valley, which is currently at the top of the feeding priority list, in full operation.

One concern biologists have is that citizens will try to attempt their own feeding program.

"It's rewarding to know people care so much about wildlife, but feeding can create more problems for people and deer. Feeding congregates deer, which makes them more vulnerable to spreading diseases. And, if people suddenly stop feeding, deer tend to move to the neighbor's property, and they may not be as tolerant when the deer start eating their ornamental shrubs," said Douglass.

"Another thing is that by bringing the deer down among residential homes, dogs become a problem. We have a lot of problems each winter with dogs chasing deer. We encourage people to control their dogs and not allow them to chase deer."

Often, too, the food that residents give to deer includes hay and apples. Given in large quantities, these foods can be a death sentence for deer.

Those who are concerned about deer in their area are asked to contact the nearest DWR office.

The plan is to keep the feeding program in operation through the winter.

"Once we commit to feeding, it's something we stay with through the winter. Deer have a complex digestive system. There's a transition period, so it's something you just don't stop."

The DWR has set up an emergency fund to pay for the feed. It then relies on volunteers to distribute the feed to the various sites.

For information visit www.muledeer.org or send an e-mail through the DWR Web site — www.wildlife.utah.gov.

Reasons why public should not feed deer

— Deer feed mostly on browse, the twigs and leaves of woody plants. Their complex digestive systems cannot adjust to a sudden and dramatic change in diet. Consequently, they cannot digest new and unfamiliar food — like hay, corn or apples — unless it's added to their diet gradually. Deer can literally die of starvation with full stomachs, sometimes within feet of feeding stations.

— Feeding concentrates deer into a smaller area. That can degrade the habitat in these areas and lead to disease outbreaks, particularly outbreaks of chronic wasting disease.

— The larger, stronger deer obtain most of the food. Fawns actually receive less nourishment than they would in the wild, and many of the fawns will die.

— Feeding stations alter the movements of deer. That can affect their migration patterns.

— Providing food too close to roadways can lead to more deer being hit and killed by cars. The number of people who are injured, or even killed in these accidents, can also climb.

— Feeding within or close to neighborhoods can lead to ornamental shrubs and other landscaping being damaged by deer.

— Feeding draws deer closer to developed areas and dogs. Dogs are a serious threat to deer in the winter.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com