Outdoors photo

There was a time when the PA Game Commission conducted a winter wildlife feeding program, a practice that was discontinued decades ago.

Photo by Charlie Burchfield

The groundhog slips back into his comfy burro after offering his prediction of six more weeks of winter. Yet so many other species have to hope they don’t run out of calories before running out of winter.

The winter months can be especially harsh on wildlife this time of year. But they are designed to survive.

Over time, research has provided a great deal of information regarding just what it takes for wildlife to survive the rigors of winter. There was a time, however, when sportsmen felt the need to intervene.

Browse for overwintering deer was in abundance. It was the result of the great logging era that began at the turn of the 20th century and lasted for decades.

However mid-point in that time period, the wild turkey began to expand its extremely limited range within the state.

Wild turkeys were getting a lot of attention from sportsmen who were willing to help this flourishing resource. At the same time the PA Game Commission conducted a number of studies regarding the wild turkeys.

Within the pages of a Winter Mortality & Supplemental Feeding research document authored by Gerald Wunz and Arnold Hayen, PA Game Commission biologists, revealed some interesting findings.

After 12 years of research, in 1975 the PGC’s findings were presented at the Third National Wild Turkey Symposium.

The research was conducted with wild turkeys in northcentral PA. The study revealed that wild turkeys starved in four winters when there were extended periods of deep powder snow on the ground.

The findings went on to discover that extended snow cover of powdery snow conditions occurred, primarily on higher elevations, and more than half of the turkeys on the Allegheny Plateau died. This even took place when supplemental food was provided.

Because periodic severe winters occur in the region, the PGC started a supplement winter feeding program. The PGC spent more than $60,000 annually for corn to fill more than 2,000 feeding stations. Sportsmen and sportsmen’s clubs took part in the effort. But was it needed?

One study of the PGC’s study areas was located in McKean Co., at the Potato Creek drainage upstream from Smethport.

It was demonstrated that turkeys could live for two weeks without any food and lose 40 percent of their normal body weight before succumbing.

Additionally a follow-up field study was conducted in 1962 to determine if losses could be prevented by supplemental feeding.

As a result of rising costs and growing evidence that artificial feeding was impractical, it caused the PGC to discontinue its winter feeding program in 1970.

Over the years to come a few exceptions were made.

The winter mortality study was extensive with over a decade of field research in the report. Several conclusions were presented. “Observations of turkey habitat used during our study suggested that long-lasting land managed practices, concentrated in areas where turkeys are most apt to starve, may be more feasible than artificial feeding to reduce losses.”

The report went on to note, “Turkeys starve even when supplemental food is provided if extended periods of deep powder snow prevent their foraging for food. No practical way has been demonstrated to prevent starvation, but some comfort can be taken in the fact that the wild turkey possesses a remarkable capacity to recover.”

The findings of the study were counter to what many wanted to hear. After all, at this point sportsmen were heavily involved in maintaining winter feeding programs.

One program that was well documented was the Aero Game Feeding program. Sportsmen who had owned private aircraft flew into the airport at Philipsburg. There, their light planes were loaded with ears of corn then flown over the mountains of the Allegheny Plateau. The effort was costly and the result difficult to quantify.

The practice of winter feeding of turkeys was addressed to the PA Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. Over time the practice of providing a one and done source of winter forage was shelved. Efforts by the members and Chapters were replaced with habitat improvement projects. The PA Chapter N.W.T.F. and its local chapters have and continue to partner with the PA Game Commission. By doing so there is continued support providing consistent long term support for habitat projects that benefit the wild turkey in general and all wildlife in particular. The efforts are more beneficial than what a couple bushels of corn will provide.

Currently PA’s Game Law prohibits the artificial feeding of elk and black bears. The prohibition has also been extended to the practice of artificial feeding to white-tailed deer within the bounds of the Disease Management Areas in a response to (CWD) Chronic Wasting Disease.

The practice of artificial feeding of elk and black bear has been enacted as well. And it’s not just the practice of feeding game that can be detrimental to the resource.

Feeders and areas around them also attract predators. Wildlife already stressed by the rigors of winter can be further compromised when attracted to feeding sites.

Also when wildlife congregate, wildlife diseases can spread. Those who watch their feeding stations can say the wildlife that visits there looks heathy. But how do they really know?

To learn more about feeding wildlife go to www.pgc.pa.gov/Wildlife/WildlifeSpecies/.../winter_feeding.pdf

Those of us who enjoy wildlife owe it to the animals we enjoy to do the right thing, especially during the winter when the going gets tough.

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Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net

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