Last month, we discussed how environmentalists mistakenly believe that wild animals do not respond to supplementation. Although many would not understand the distinction between range supplementation and range feeding, intuitively many groups who consider themselves "friends of wildlife" oppose range feeding.
This is where the philosophies of ranchers and environmentalists diverge sharply. Environmentalists have blind faith in Nature, and believe the intervention of man is "unnatural." This means that in national parks and other lands where hunting or cropping is not permitted, animal populations will expand until they exceed available forage, then starvation will occur.
In my opinion, anyone who can watch an animal starve to death is "sick." I also do not believe any of my rancher clients could watch an animal suffer like that.
The reality is that Nature is simply a series of random events that can lead to agonizing deaths. In some cases, man can prevent such suffering, and it seems intuitive that we have a responsibility to do so. The primary means, of course, is to manage ranges properly. When animal populations exceed capacity, ranchers either move animals to other pastures or to humane slaughter.
In the case of wildlife, hunting seasons should be allowed. When short-term emergencies occur, we can and should feed animals.
Supplementation Is Justifiable Feeding is different than supplementation. Feeding means supplying a substitute for the animal's usual forage. Supplementation means augmenting whatever is absent in the forage.
By definition, supplementation is economically justifiable. Without supplementation, animals will be protein, vitamin or mineral deficient. The cost is small compared with what would be the loss in performance.
Feeding is expensive compared to range forage, which should be the cheapest sustenance available. For that reason, feeding is reserved only for short-term emergencies (blizzards, etc.).
Drought is not a short-term emergency. Although as a nutritionist I design a lot of rations for maintaining (feeding) cowherds during droughts, as a consultant I always advise my clients not to do so. You never know when a drought will break, and it is not economical to purchase feed to maintain a 1,000-lb. animal - to produce only 400 lbs. of beef. Purchasing feed to maintain a cowherd causes more ranch bankruptcies than any other event.
The High Cost Of Ignorance The controversy in feeding wildlife, however, has nothing to do with cost. Rather, there have been instances in which inappropriate feeds were used.
The most well known is a case in which moose were allowed to go to the brink of death (by starvation), and at the last hour were helicoptered what was apparently dairy quality alfalfa hay. This caused what is commonly known as "protein poisoning." (Whenever an animal is in a starvation physiological state, high protein feeds can be lethal.)
The inference drawn in wildlife circles was that wild ungulates cannot be fed hay. The reality, of course, is that ruminants are all very similar.
Nearly 30 years ago, there were studies that showed similar digestion between deer, elk and domestic ruminants. (1, 2) Cattle can likewise be killed with excessive protein, but ranchers typically begin feeding when forage first becomes short, not when the animals are at the point of starvation.
1. Cowan, R.L., et.al. Comparative Nutrition ... A Research Symposium. USDA Misc. Pub. 1147, 1970. 2. Pearson, H.A. Rumen organisms in white tailed deer. J. Wildlife Mgt. 29:493-496.