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When Wildlife Don't Stay in the Wild

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Photo by Brian Nietzke Photo by Brian Nietzke

Don't 'love' them to death.

He was young; a yearling, maybe, or possibly even a two-year-old, but as the gangly moose trotted in front of our car going down Chestnut in Sandpoint, I kept my eye out for his mama. I expected her to be somewhere close by, not just because the moose looked young enough to still be hanging around with his mom, but because I’d heard for days about the pair of moose hanging out on Boyer Avenue. We were just a block from Boyer, traveling on Chestnut near Lake Pend Oreille Alternative High School, when we spotted the youngster.

Just the day before, David and I were driving on Gooby Road late at night, a little further out of ‘town’ than Chestnut, when he suddenly swerved to miss a large moose that ambled out on the road in front of us. Was it mama? It could have been—moose can range over a large area. Or it could have been a completely different animal because the snow was deep, and deep snow is one of the reasons wild animals will desert the mountains around us and spend their days cruising through residential areas.

It’s all about food, explains Matt Haag, a conservation officer with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “They get pushed down with deeper snow, frozen snow and cold weather,” he said. “They switch to winter browse (tree limbs and woody material) and especially like the fruit trees. They seek out ornamental trees that we grow in our backyards, thus the moose hanging out near Farmin Stidwell/Boyer.”

“I was driving down Boyer and spotted a pair of moose grazing in someone’s yard,” Gail Fendley told me. “It was this great scene. I could see the homeowners inside, watching TV, while right outside their window these moose were eating their landscaping.”

Yes, we took a picture of the young moose trotting down the road in front of us, in spite of my knowing better. I had decided then and there to write this story, and wanted the photo to illustrate.

That’s not much of an excuse, however, when you compare it with the trauma a young moose undoubtedly experiences when followed down the road by a vehicle. When they cease ambling and begin trotting, you know you’re causing them some anxiety. Which, let’s face it, is not really what you want to do. Especially with moose. Still, every time I’ve spotted a moose in downtown Sandpoint (and it’s happened more than a few times) there has always been a pack of budding paparazzi following behind, eager for a great shot.

While an anxious moose might well look for a way to quickly get away from you, potentially injuring himself in the process, an anxious moose might also decide that your vehicle is a threat he’s more than prepared to take on—more than one person locally has had a vehicle (and even themselves) become a losing target to a moose that feels challenged.

The fact they’re in your yard, or on your street, does not magically domesticate what are, we tend to forget, wild animals. They don’t want your attention and, furthermore, they don’t need your help.

A moose (or a deer for that matter) nibbling at your lilacs or munching on the volunteer cottonwood is not the northwest equivalent of a poor person digging through a garbage dumpster. “[People] think they are starving because they are eating woody material, when in fact that’s what they need,” explained Matt. “I got yelled at by a couple that was feeding [a] moose apples when I tried to explain the moose diet. They said it was awful that “we” would let them starve by leaving them to a diet of trees.”

Moose in Sandpoint

Feeding wildlife is a problem, and most often goes far beyond tossing out a few apples when ungulates appear in the backyard. There are those who go to considerable expense to buy grain or alfalfa for the specific purpose of feeding wildlife that are not only capable of finding their own food in the winter, but need to do so in order not to become domesticated. A fed animal, in Fish and Game’s experience, too often becomes a dead animal. Which is why state wildlife officials are asking the Bonner County Commissioners to adopt an ordinance that would prevent the intentional feeding of wildlife and provide penalties for those who do so.

“Just asking [people] not to do it hasn’t worked,” explained Becky Haag, who is an environmental biologist with Fish and Game. Even an ordinance doesn’t always work with people bound and determined to do what they think is best, regardless of the opinions of others. John Fraley, who manages Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park’s Regional Information and Education Program in Kalispell, points out it’s not only a bad idea to feed the deer, but that “it’s illegal now. ...We’d really like to see people start realizing that the animal has to forage on its own. If it loses that natural foraging, it’s not going to survive anyway,” he added.

In 2009, Montana revised state law to specifically prohibit the feeding of mountain lions and ungulates (deer, moose, elk and antelope).

There are a number of reasons, say Montana FWP, why feeding wildlife is a bad idea. 

Supplemental feeding encourages wildlife to become dependent on handouts that are not part of their natural diets.

Human foods are usually not suited for wildlife and may lead to health problems.

Young animals that are taught to depend on humans sometimes never develop normal foraging behavior, and could starve if the artificial food sources are removed or more likely become nuisances and come in conflict with humans.

Wildlife lose their fear of humans and learn that they can boldly forage for human food, causing possible risks to human safety.

Wild animals being fed by humans may congregate in unnaturally high numbers, and this is the perfect opportunity for diseases to spread.

Feeding wildlife, especially prey species such as deer, squirrels and rabbits, often causes a domino or food chain effect. Example: Increase deer numbers in your yard and you may be inviting a mountain lion for a free meal.

In addition, wildlife attracted to a less-than-wild habitat are also a danger to our pets. The family dog, protesting the incursion of a wild animal onto “his” property, is likely to become a target of an animal that can cause him serious injury.

In Montana, intentionally feeding wildlife is a misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $1,000, six months in jail and the possibility of losing privileges to hunt, fish or trap.

Still many, citing their love for animals, will continue to put out food for wildlife because they don’t want to see them starve, refusing to recognize that, in the process, they are “loving” them to death.

If you’d like to share your opinion about a wildlife feeding ordinance with the Bonner County Commissioners, you may write to them at 1500 Hwy 2 Suite 308, Sandpoint, ID, 83864, telephone 208-265-1438 or email the individual commissioners at [email protected] (Joe Young) [email protected] (Lewis Rich) and [email protected] (Cornel Rasor).

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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Sandpoint, moose, wildlife, Matt Haag, feeding wildlife, Becky Haag, Gail Fendley, John Fraley, laws regarding feeding wildlife

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