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To feed or not to feed -- local hunters decide

Posted: Thursday, January 24, 2002

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) -- Snow falls. Some folks salivate over weekend powder days. Others calculate water content, potato acreage and wheat yields. Larry Orme and Kent Marlor dwell on deer and elk.

Namely they consider the prospect of animals dying in the hills, victims of snow, cold or a combination of both. They are two of the five members of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's eastern Idaho winter feeding advisory committee.

Their job is to answer a question with no clear-cut answer: Should we feed starving animals because the public is upset, or should we let wildlife die a natural death, as they animals have since the beginning of time?

''Feeding wildlife is a fine line to walk,'' said Marlor, a long time hunter and professor at BYU-Idaho. ''The public has a difficult time watching animals that look hungry, but at the same time we don't want to start an annual feeding program. So we try to make decisions that work to both ends.''

Many see the winter feeding program as a stopgap measure when winters get particularly nasty, a simple way to help some animals. Others see it as a waste of money that could be better spent on buying winter ranges. Whatever the case, the committee works quietly to make a difference, no matter how small.

''This isn't a perfect system,'' Orme said. ''I just try to do the best I can and hope the public understands.''

The committee system was created by the Idaho Legislature in 1995 after the harsh winter of 1992-93 killed thousands of deer. Fish and Game had fed for years, but there were no formal guidelines, which led to controversy as to when and where the department should hit the hills with hay in hand.

''Our policy up to then was to feed when conditions were critical, but nobody knew what critical was,'' said Brad Compton, wildlife manager in the Upper Snake River Valley. ''The committee was established to give us the guidelines.''

As a result of the law, feeding committees were established. The committees were charged with writing feeding guidelines, monitoring snow conditions and working with the public. Each committee started by writing region-specific rules with help from Fish and Game biologists.

For example some guidelines are if:

--The daytime temperatures were below zero for three straight days in the previous month.

--The snow is severely crusted. Severely crusted is when animals break through ''crusted, heavy, wet snow.'' Crust is a major problem because it is a terrible energy sap and it makes it tough for animals to get food.

--The animals are in poor condition. Health of the herd is surmised by studying fat on the sternums of yearling deer at check stations. If a yearling deer, for example, has less than 6 mm of fat, or roughly the width of the head of a sharp pencil, on its rib cage and sternum, it's considered in poor condition.

--The snow depth is more than 18 inches on the south slopes of winter ranges. Snow depth criteria changes as the winter progresses. So now in eastern Idaho, feeding is matter of numbers, not hunches.

''It's a good step,'' Compton said. ''It is science-based policy. Any time we can create policy from science, we're ahead of the game.'' The department has final say, but the importance of the committee can't be overstated: Fish and Game has only once overruled the committee's recommendation in eastern Idaho.

''The process works very well, simply because we have representation from everyone, hunters and biologists,'' Marlor said. ''Secondly, we can get things done very rapidly.''

Once they decide to feed, the department sets up temporary feed sites and distributes the 663 tons of hay stored in the region. The hay is purchased annually from the state's winter feeding account. Seventy-five cents from the sale of every deer, elk and antelope tag goes to the winter feeding account.

That's wasted money to some folks. ''That money would have been far better spent buying or restoring winter range,'' said Ted Chu, a former wildlife biologist with Fish and Game.

Chu managed wildlife in the region for years and understands there are times that animals must be fed, namely in areas where they've been habituated by years of feeding. But he said feeding is usually a bad idea because it concentrates and habituates animals.

''Feeding is the easy out,'' he said. ''It's much easier to toss hay than deal with habitat problems. Once you start, you create a generation of animals that recognize feeding as the only way to get through the winter. Then you have no way out.'''

Feeding can lead to range damage and increase the chance that diseases will spread, Chu said. ''Feeding gives people a nice warm feeling. However in most cases it is better for the long-term health of population to let the animals make it or not make it on their own,'' Chu said.

Still Compton is happy with the state's feeding system, and namely the feeding committee. ''I don't have heartburn with it all. If it is applied when it needs to be, it is appropriate action,'' he said.

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