Feeding wildlife harms, not helps, Colorado wildlife officials warn
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Spring has arrived, but heavy snows and cold temperatures have kept wildlife at lower elevations around Steamboat Springs where they frequently encounter humans.
Those humans, seeing scraggly herds of elk, deer and moose, sometimes take it upon themselves to feed what they see as starving animals struggling to survive the area’s harsh winter months.
But, local wildlife officials, seeing animals fall sick or even die after eating human food, are urging the public to keep their distance from wild animals and allow them to remain just that — wild.
Feeding or otherwise disturbing wildlife not only hurts their health, it attracts feral creatures into urban areas, creating dangerous situations for both those animals and the people who live here.
A news release published Wednesday by Colorado Parks and Wildlife described how a deer in the San Luis Valley died recently because of human-provided food. Officials examined its stomach and found it filled with corn and grain, both foods that deer can’t digest.
Incidents like this explain why it is illegal in Colorado to feed wildlife. Violators can face fines for doing so, but the real consequences fall upon the animals themselves.
Mike Porras, public information officer for Parks and Wildlife’s northwest region, said despite what many believe, native animals have adapted to the area’s subzero winter temperatures and deep snowpack.
“Wildlife has been existing in these kind of condition for eons without human help,” he said.
Herd animals like elk and deer follow a regular migration pattern each year, descending from the surrounding mountains to the Yampa Valley where they forage for any remaining vegetation.
For the most part, they subsist on the fat they stored in the plant-plentiful summer months. They typically lose 30 to 40 percent of their body weight during the winter, according to the news release.
Kris Middledorf, a Parks and Wildlife area manager based in Steamboat, considers this a period of Darwinian natural selection. The strong survive and give birth to healthy, similarly strong offspring.
“Some animals — they starve and they die,” Middledorf said. “That is natural and what CPW expects.”
When people feed wildlife, they disrupt that natural process.
“In most cases, human intervention has far worse consequences than doing nothing,” Porras said.
In addition to corn and grain, he has seen people feeding more processed foods like corn chips to wild animals.
“That can severely damage their digestive system, leading to death,” he said, as proved by the deer found in the San Luis Valley.
Middledorf added that feeding wildlife makes them dependent on humans and brings more animals to urban areas. This has been a more serious issue recently, as the snow melts around town, and more animals have come to graze on the newly uncovered vegetation.
He pointed to a situation last week involving a young moose that had been hanging out under the gondola at Steamboat Resort. People in the nearby condominiums were throwing food at it from their balconies. Some got within five feet of the moose, one of the state’s most aggressive animals, just to take a selfie with it.
If the moose had charged or injured someone, that person wouldn’t be the only one facing consequences.
“Any animal that attacks a human being, we will have to put that animal down,” Middledorf said.
To prevent such a situation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife moved the moose to a more remote area last week. That requires tranquilizing the animal, which Middledorf said can put wildlife at further risk after they are released.
He even had a term for it: “capture myopathy.” It is a disease often associated with the capture of a wild animal that causes muscle damage and stress. For animals already struggling from the winter months, such a disease could be a breaking point.
With all of this in mind, Middledorf said his main goal is to educate the public to respect local wildlife and maintain their distance.
“The best thing we can do is learn to coexist with these animals,” he said. “That means learning to keep our distance and not feeding them.”
To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.
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