An elk was found dead in Rusk County this month, likely after it ate corn put out by a landowner who was only trying to help wildlife during the winter months, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

The animal died from rumen acidosis, a direct result from eating the corn. Feeding elk anywhere in Wisconsin is illegal.

The elk, a young bull, was part of a contingent of animals transferred from Kentucky to Wisconsin in April. It had been released in the Flambeau River State Forest. It died on private property near Tony, Rusk County, southwest of the state forest.

The elk was wearing an orange GPS tracking collar that emitted a mortality signal in late December.

In this case, the landowner was baiting a stand site for deer hunting as archery was still open, according to DNR deer and elk ecologist Kevin Wallenfang.

“The elk started eating the bait without his knowledge,” Wallenfang said. “There was also standing corn in the area, so there is no way of knowing exactly where the elk got all the corn that was in his belly.”

The landowner has since stopped baiting and feeding, which is the law once an elk starts hitting a baited or feed site, Wallenfang said.

Wallenfang called the elk death unfortunate for a couple reasons.

“One, of course, is the harm it did to an individual animal. Second, this is an elk that was transported last winter from Kentucky, so not only is there a loss of the investment, but the purpose of bringing him and others here—to increase the herd and infuse new genetics in the herd—are lost from this individual,” Wallenfang said.

Once widespread in Wisconsin and across North America, elk were eliminated from the state in the 1880s due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. Over 130 years later, they once again live in the central and northern forest regions of the state. From a population of 25 elk reintroduced in 1995, and with the help of a second reintroduction effort that started in 2015, the state’s total elk population is quickly approaching 400 animals.

In 2014, the DNR entered into an agreement with the state of Kentucky to import, quarantine and release as many as 150 wild elk over a period of up to five years. The overall plan involved dividing these animals into two areas of the state, including releasing up to 75 elk to establish a new elk herd in the Black River State Forest, with a long-term population goal of 390 elk. This effort occurred in 2015 and 2016 with 73 elk released. The plan also called for adding up to 75 elk to the existing Clam Lake herd, with a long-term population goal of 1,400 elk. One year of this effort was completed in 2017, resulting in the release of 31 Kentucky elk into the Flambeau River State Forest near the town of Winter. Early spring of 2019 marked the final translocation effort and was the most efficient and successful translocation to date, with 48 elk transported to the Flambeau River State Forest on April 3, 2019. The elk completed their required quarantine and acclimation period before being released in late August.

Overall the elk reintroduction is going great, but Wallenfang said these situations are never pleasant.

The DNR contacted the landowner where the elk was determined to be and obtained permission to access the site. The animal was found in a bedded position near the base of a tree, its body bloated, according to a DNR report.

No wounds or injuries were visible on external investigation. But as the DNR crew cut open the elk’s body cavity, hundreds of corn kernels tumbled out of its digestive tract.

“While the landowner didn’t do anything illegal because he wasn’t aware that an elk was there until it was too late, he felt horrible about it,” Wallenfang said.

The landowner made a monetary contribution of $2,000 to the elk reintroduction program in Wisconsin to help fund habitat work, according to Wallenfang. He added the funds will also help in the effort to educate the public on the harm that winter feeding can do if not done right.

“This same situation probably happens many, many times each winter from people feeding deer thinking that they are helping, when in fact they are hurting or, as in this case, even killing the animals they intend to help,” Wallenfang said.

Rumen acidosis kills white-tailed deer, too.

The condition affects deer and elk when their diet is changed too rapidly from natural, high-fiber browse such as twigs to low-fiber, high-carbohydrate supplemental feeds such as corn, wheat and barley. It inhibits or stops digestion in affected animals. Rapid death can result even in deer and elk in otherwise good physical condition.

The best method to feed deer is to provide plenty of natural browse, not corn or other grains or hay, according to Wallenfang.

Since the winter of 2019–20 started cold and snowy in northern Wisconsin, more landowners than usual—including those without knowledge and experience—may be contemplating putting out food for wildlife.

It’s not known how many other deer or elk may have been killed by supplemental feeding efforts this year in Wisconsin.

In the wake of the elk death in Rusk County, the DNR is sharing pertinent wildlife regulations, as well as guidelines for winter deer feeding. Prior to starting any feeding, the DNR recommends people contact their local wildlife biologist.

DNR information states, “Deer adapt physiologically and behaviorally to survive the rigorous winters of Wisconsin.”

Deer are less active and feed less during late December to late February. At this time, they are utilizing their body fat reserves acquired on their summer and fall ranges. This is especially important since natural winter foods, or browse, are less nutritious and less abundant than summer foods. Whether an individual deer is able to survive the winter depends largely on the deer’s physical health going into winter, the severity and duration of winter, the amount of quality food available and the amount of energy the animal uses.

Some deer, especially fawns and older deer, die in any winter regardless of severity. Mortality among these age groups increases as the winter severity increases. These animals usually have insufficient amounts of stored energy, or body fat, and may be unable to find and compete with other deer for available food. The majority of deer will survive even the harshest winter without the need for supplemental feeding. Occasional severe winters and deer losses are normal in northern areas of the state. The majority of mortalities tend to occur in March or April as deer body fat is depleted.

“If done wrong, winter feeding can do more harm than good,” reads the DNR handout on winter deer feeding. “Therefore, you need to be prepared to do it right or don’t do it at all.”

The rule against feeding elk was put in place to prevent incidents such as the recent one near Tony, as well as because feeding was linked to elk-vehicle collisions when the animals repeatedly crossed highways to visit private properties where food was placed for wildlife, Wallenfang said.

If elk are hitting a bait pile or feeding site, it is the responsibility of the hunter or landowner to remove the food.

“Feeding does very little to help the regional deer herd survive winter because most of the herd, as much as 70 percent, is inaccessible to feeding,” said DNR information on winter feeding.

Baiting and feeding deer is also prohibited in most of Wisconsin by state law. The statute is intended to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis, as well as to lessen stress or injury to deer through fighting.

Feeding deer near a residence or business can also cause heavy browsing on ornamental trees and shrubs. Congregating deer can attract predators or increase chasing by domestic dogs, which may add additional stress and survival factors. Finally, the financial costs can be high and lead to improper feeding activities.

The best approach to help deer survive a severe winter is to provide woody browse by dropping aspen or maple trees so the animals can access the twigs and buds from the tops, the DNR says.

If that is not possible, in areas feeding is legal, the agency recommends putting out a deer mix in late February and continue through snowmelt or until deer have dispersed to summer habitats.

Formulated deer food mixes of corn, alfalfa, oats, soybeans, molasses and several vitamins and minerals are the best choice, according to the DNR. Many feed mills in Wisconsin sell this mixture in pellet or meal form. If such a mix is not available, rabbit, goat or horse pellets which contain at least 12-percent protein can be used. By late February, deer that have been accustomed to eating and digesting woody browse for most of the winter are able to digest this food.

After the formulated deer food mixtures, oats are preferred over all other supplemental foods as they provide deer with a very favorable ratio of fiber and carbohydrates.

Do not feed deer a pure corn diet as the high starch content of corn can cause high acidity in the rumen which kills microorganisms necessary for digesting food.

Do not feed hay to deer. When deer have encountered low food supplies, rumen activity decreases and fermentation of fiber decreases. The fiber type in hay cannot be readily broken down. Deer can have full stomachs of hay and still die from starvation.

Baiting and feeding deer is legal in Rusk County. The landowner reportedly did not know the elk was visiting the corn he placed on his property.

Also consider the following:

• Consult your local wildlife biologist before starting any feeding efforts.

• Read the rules that regulate feeding.

• Try to feed near sheltered areas with conifer cover that are out of the wind.

• Feed only where deer currently exist to avoid pulling deer out of good winter cover.

• Do not feed in areas of high human, dog, automobile and snowmobile activity.

• Place food in multiple small piles to reduce competition among deer.

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