Feeding elk has been promoted as helpful and even necessary during this snowy winter in the East Kootenay. But is feeding elk really best for the animals?
Experienced wildlife biologists have repeatedly argued that feeding elk can do more harm than good, even in harsh winters. The facts don’t support the assertions that we have to feed elk in order for them to survive.
Not nearly enough is being done to protect crucial habitat for elk, deer and moose to make sure that their habitat requirements are met. They need forest cover and alternate natural feed sources as well as healthy range in order to get the nutrition they need before winter sets in and once the snow goes. A long-term, ecosystem-based approach that prioritizes habitat is the best way to address maintaining healthy wildlife populations. No landscape level plan is in place to protect and connect critical wildlife habitats in the Kootenays.
Ungulates naturally lose 10-30% of their body weight each winter. Body reserves of fat and protein are more critical to winter survival and reproduction than loss of body mass. Melatonin produced by the brain is an elk’s winter survival mechanism because it lowers their bodies need for high nutrition food in the winter. They have evolved over thousands of years to cope with winter this way.
Feeding hay accelerates loss of fat and protein which reduces the chance elk will survive the winter. Elk that have been nibbling on farmers hay since late last summer have gut microbes adjusted to a hay diet and they will likely be fine. But most elk that come out of the mountains to winter in the valley are not adapted to a sudden hay diet.
The most critical time for bull elk to receive high nutrition food that gives them the best chance of winter survival is in the fall after the rut. For lactating cows with a calf it’s the natural forage they eat in the spring and summer that dictates their chances of winter survival.
How do we ensure elk have high nutrition food on their fall, spring and summer ranges? Provide and maintain high quality natural habitats. Invest in habitat enhancement. Invest in science to tell us where these habitats are located, what condition they are in and protect them from development or degradation.
Read more on winter elk feeding from the East Kootenay Wildlife Association’s Mark Hall in e-KNOW.