Wild About Elk: Elk And People-Issues With Elk: Part II: Artificial Feeding

Hand Feeding Of Elk Is Risky, And Is Illegal In Pennsylvania: Photo by W.Hill
According to WCO McDowell, the PGC suspects feeding as the cause of death for 12 elk, but only four cases have been confirmed in laboratory tests. One workshop attendee questioned why elk could die from eating corn, but it was not a threat to deer. At this point Mr. McDowell explained that deer are also vulnerable and dealt with the situation in depth,

His presentation covered much of the information given in PGC News Release #088-09 "ARTIFICIAL FEEDING CONFIRMED IN DEATHS OF FOUR ELK: GAME COMMISSION SAYS LITTER CAUSING RISK TO WILDLIFE ”  Source: The Pennsylvania Game Commission:-Resources-News Releases-1999-2009 Archives

The following is a pertinent excerpt from the Release:

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Game Commission officials recently reported that there have been four cases involving elk that have died of rumen acidosis, which is directly related to artificial feeding that causes an abrupt change in an elk’s diet that wreaks havoc with its digestive system. Feeding elk is illegal, as it causes problems by habituating elk to find food around homes and can be dangerous to those who attempt to feed elk by hand. So far, we have been able to document four cases of such deaths,” said Dr. Walter Cottrell, Game Commission wildlife veterinarian. “There have been other deaths that believed may have been caused by such feeding, but, in those cases the animal was either decomposed or other circumstances prevented it from obtaining the carcass in time for laboratory analysis to take place.”

Dr. Cottrell explained that elk, as well as white-tailed deer, adapt to a winter diet of primarily woody vegetation and they will die of acidosis caused by a build up of lactic acid in the rumen, chambers of its four-part stomach that is responsible for fermentation of food. If they consume too much high-fermentable grain, such as corn, which is the most common artificial feed put out by local residents, the pH level falls quickly and a shock-like syndrome can occur.

Local residents have been issued citations for the illegal feeding. In one case, an elk was found lying dead on a pile of corn. In another case, a resident dragged the carcass of a dead elk into the woods in an attempt to conceal the situation.

We need to have local residents and district justices understand that the well intentioned individuals are actually killing elk,” Dr. Cottrell said. “For those who truly enjoy seeing elk it is best for them to stop artificially feeding elk and other wildlife. It would be far more beneficial if they were to implement some form of habitat improvement producing cover to reduce weather-related stress or food in the form of digestible native plants on their property.”

PGC Recommends Landowners Plant Food And Cover To Attract Wildlife: Photo by W.Hill

Elk Feeding In PGC Food Plot (herbaceous opening) Planted In Grain: Photo by W.Hill
Some view the news release with a certain degree of skepticism and point out that they have not seen or heard of large numbers of deer lying dead in corn fields left standing into the winter and in their opinion this should be no different than animals eating corn at a feeder.  I recently spoke with a retired PGC Maintenance Supervisor who began working for the agency in the 1960s at a time when they still planted food plots in corn, which was left stand for winter wildlife food. This was at a time that the deer population was not large enough to decimate the corn before it ripened, and it was common to go into winter with a field loaded with corn ears, yet he only recalls finding one dead deer in these fields. In light of this, it seems likely that the problem is caused by sudden exposure to a large amount of corn such as when a truck-load is abruptly dumped in an area, and not simply feeding on corn per se. Dr. Cottrell refers to this when he mentions, "if they consume too much highly fermentable grain such as corn". Those deer utilizing a corn field may have gradually become accustomed to the change in diet as the corn ripened and thus avoided problems.

Much supplemental feeding is done on a small scale, or occurs when animals raid bird feeders,etc. and is not as likely to be lethal as large scale operations, but all are well advised to remember that intentional artificial feeding of elk or bears is illegal under the Pennsylvania Game And Wildlife Code.

To be continued:

Originally Posted At:Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill


Wild About Elk: Elk And People-Issues With Elk

The Wild About Elk workshop which I attended in mid-June was broken down into segments built around areas of specific interest in elk management.  These segments were presented to the class by persons extremely knowledgeable in that specific area of interest, and in most cases by the person responsible for implementing that portion of the elk program for The Pennsylvania Game Commission.

We discussed the presentation by Jon DiBerti, PGC elk biologist, in two previous posts and hope to dwell on a few more aspects of his presentation in the future, but today we begin dealing with: Elk And People-Issues With Elk, which was presented by Elk County WCO (Wildlife Conservation Officer), Doty McDowell who is assigned to perform and direct law-enforcement functions in the core elk range on Winslow Hill and surrounding areas.

WCO Doty McDowell Addresses Workshop On Elk And People Issues
 WCO McDowell stressed that many elk and human conflicts result from both animals and humans being attracted to the same places.  Much of the human population in the mountainous northcentral region of the state is clustered in the lowlands and of course along roadways.  There is a lot of undeveloped land, much of it owned by the state government and administered by DCNR or the PGC. In most cases, this  land is managed for wildlife or multi-purpose use, with wildlife interests being kept strongly in mind. The problem is that much of this is rugged mountain land, which is less than ideal wildlife habitat in dry summers or severe winters.  This means that elk gravitate to areas where there is more moisture and abundant plant growth and these areas are often near human habitation.  While some are pleased to see the elk near their homes, others are not as the animals can do significant damage to ornamental plants, gardens, and agricultural crops, and may present a hazard to motorists.  This means that a substantial portion of a conservation officer's time is spent in dealing with complaints.  The conservation officer is caught between the proverbial "rock and a hard place"  as a portion of the public is displeased if they remove the animal from an area, but ignoring the complaint is not an option as those with the problem will continue to demand action.

According to WCO McDowell, many of the complaints in the late winter and early spring months arise from the practice of winter feeding.  In many cases this is done to attract bulls with impressive antlers to a certain spot and to keep them in that area until the antlers are shed, so that the person doing the feeding can collect the antlers. It is legal to possess shed elk and deer antlers in Pennsylvania, but they may not be sold. There are few complaints until the antlers are shed, but they increase dramatically thereafter, especially when the animals graze on ornamental shrubs and flowers.

It is currently illegal to feed bear and elk. in Pennsylvania., but bans on the artificial feeding of wildlife is a controversial subject.  Attempts to enforce the elk feeding ban have met with limited success as it seems that in most if not all cases,  those charged with violating the ban have been acquitted in magistrate court by district magistrates not sympathetic to this law in particular, or the PGC in general.  A notable exception is a camp owner that placed hay and possibly a small amount of corn to attract elk to his property during the early years of the feeding ban.  He was confronted by a DWCO (Deputy Wildlife Conservation Officer) about the situation, readily admitted that he had placed the food for elk and paid the fine without contesting the charge.  His position was that he had done nothing morally wrong, but that he did place the feed for elk and would pay the penalty. It seems the most common defense is to claim that the feed is for some other species and I have seen signs that state some variation of the following: "Food For Deer Only!, Elk May Not Feed Here!"

Bull Elk Spar At Feeder

Since enforcing the ban by arrest and warnings has been less than successful, the agency has attempted to gain voluntary compliance by public education about the problems associated with artificial feeding.

An excellent example of trying to gain voluntary compliance occurred in the early years of the ban before the current educational initiative became the order of the day. This incident involved a retired PGC employee who is also a long time camp owner.  One of his favorite pastimes was going to camp during antler shedding time. He and his family and friends sat in lawn chairs, watching the elk feed in the camp lawn.  A good time was had by all as they socialized and waited, in the hopes that a bull would lose his antlers while they waited. This was a deeply ingrained tradition and an event to look forward to each year, yet suddenly it was illegal.  In this instance the camp owner was approached by a high ranking PGC official and was told that the agency was aware that he was feeding elk and that a "word to the wise should be sufficient".  This was certainly the "decent" thing to do, but some felt it was either unfair or sent an inconsistent message in light of other persons being charged for the same offense.

Yet it turns out that elk-human conflicts and elk habituation to humans is no longer the  primary objection to elk feeding. Instead the PGC now contends there is a scientifically proven link between artificial feeding and elk mortality.

Shelled Corn At A Feeder-Is This A Deadly Food?

To be continued:

Originally posted by Willard Hill at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer