CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With a hard winter well underway, West Virginians might well be tempted to try to feed deer living in the woods nearby.
Wildlife officials have a simple word of advice: Don't. Not only can it make deer unduly dependent on humans, it can mess up the animals' ability to digest the food they find naturally in forests and along the edges of fields.
Deer are ruminants. Unlike humans, their stomachs lack enzymes that break down food for digestion. Instead, they regurgitate what they consume and break it down by "chewing their cud" in much the same manner as cows. The double-chewed cud then has its nutrients extracted by bacteria in the animals' intestines.
In winter, deer subsist primarily on "browse" - twig tips and buds from trees and shrubs. The bacteria in whitetails' digestive systems are accustomed to such fare and are easily able to absorb nutrients from it.
When deer are fed food they're not used to, such as shelled corn or livestock food pellets, their systems can take weeks to adjust. Until that happens, the animals don't get much nutrition no matter how much they eat.
To avoid confusing the digestive systems of diet-sensitive deer, officials from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation recommend that humans instead cut down or topple small trees and shrubs so deer can reach more of the twigs and buds their systems are used to digesting.
The process, called browse cutting, has several advantages over grain-based supplemental feeding. One, it costs almost nothing. Two, it can be done as part of firewood cuts or timber-stand improvements. Three, it can make use of tree and shrub species that aren't much good for saw timber, pulp or firewood. And four, if done properly it makes deer less susceptible to disease by keeping them from feeding too close to one another.
According to the list on the New York agency's website, common deer-preferred species include dogwood, maple, apple, sassafras and basswood. Secondary species include willow, hemlock, oaks and hickory. Species poor in nutrition include beech, rhododendron, poplar, locust, and just about any variety of pine or spruce.
The most common method of browse cutting is to leave "slash" - limbs and tops from felled trees - lying on the forest floor. Biologists recommend cutting the slash so that the limbs' tips and buds lie no more than 3 feet off the ground.
Another method, called "hinging," involves cutting part way through saplings no more than 3 inches in diameter and pushing the tops over. One advantage of hinging is that it can be done quickly and quietly with a handsaw so as not to disturb any deer that might lurk nearby.
Paul Johansen, assistant wildlife chief for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said the concept of browse cutting is almost unheard of in the Mountain State, but he likes the idea.
"At least this way, you don't run the risk of hurting the animals you're trying to help," he said.