It’s that time of year again, when we can throw another log on the fire to sit down in warm comfort and watch movies for entertaining ourselves. But, not so lucky are  our wildlife friends.  Extremely cold, hard winters, heavy with snow, are often exasperatingly  cruel to the wild things that have limited defense mechanisms beyond what nature provided them to begin with. Unlike, humans, whom can go inside protective dwellings hammered out by the hand of man, with living space  controlled by thermostats, their comfort has no such offerings.   Often deep snows prohibit adequate forage conditions for ungulates and massive starvation and die-offs result. These kinds of tragedies are hard to witness without wanting to do something, let alone except how the cycles of ecological services actually functions in the absence of our dabbling.

Who has not seen Bambi from the dream world realm of the Walt Disney dynasty?  Humans love to dream, and we use them to propel our motives and desires forward. Fantasy precedes reality, and helps shape our intended creations, but often the final result does not always lead to our  initial desired outcome. In wildlife management circles, professionals often refer to fantasy prone idealism that has sentimentalized wildlife,  as the “Bambi Complex.”  The problem of these anthropomorphic views, is that it skews what people understand, or more correctly causes gross mis-understandings,  and thereby often leads to behavior that can be more of a hinderance than a help to mother nature.

A famed psychologist in reference to this American phenomenon stated: “Disney cartoons are a shared cultural heritage that predate Beaver Cleaver and Howdy Doody. They are the beginning of our global media village…For better or worse, Uncle Walt pioneered the notion of a standard-issue childhood memory.” During the same time Bambi came into being, so did Smokey the Bear, which also became a pervasive cultural icon, often distorting our view of nature.  So it seems, these images and the “wrong headed-ness ” views they represent are burned deep into our collective cultural psyche.  No surprise there, when you consider how much unquestioned media consumption eats away at our  human mind.

During the winter, when animals are pushed down to lower elevations to seek shelter and food, many do not survive, even then. But, they are often more observable  by people, since refuge areas are closer to suburbia,  and watching an animal starve to death is not a pretty picture. It is only natural that people want to help, and so many try to organize some kind of winter feeding project. This has been happening for many years now in the Teton’s  and Jackson Hole area, for example.

However, though biologist have known for a long time now, that winter feeding often has the opposite effect from that which is intended, new studies have reinforced the idea that we should not be trying to impose ourselves on natures job.  So why is winter feeding so bad, you may be asking?

For starters, when it comes to animals like deer and elk, feeding stations created by humans,  often draw big numbers of animals, into more concentrated and confined areas. the result is often at the expense of devastating range conditions which can lower productivity of the land that further reduces its capacity to provide for wildlife needs.  Helping the few comes with the negative consequences to the many.  Short term thinking often creates more problems than it solves and clouds implementing long-range solutions that could better benefit wildlife over-all.

More nefarious though, is that artificial feeding which draws more than normal numbers of animals closer together and for longer periods of time,  increases the  threat of epizootic diseases. (epizootic: spread of disease quickly through animals). Brucellosis  and tuberculosis are two such diseases.  Another disease that can arise to make the crisis even worse and longer lived, is that caused by a protein called a “prion” which can become dangerously entrenched within the wintering grounds for ages. These  infectious prions  can cause chronic wasting disease, (CWD) which basically eats away at the brain. (like mad cow disease, only in deer and elk). Even uglier is the fact that  there is no cure for this.

Bails of hay also won’t save animals, who hang  around eating them, while standing in a feedlot-like prion impregnated area.  In addition, often the micro-flora inside the stomach of deer and elk are not adept at adequately digesting the domestic grasses, that were more created for cows. If their diets are changed too drastically, their microflora do not have a chance to adapt, so is why animals are often discovered dead with a full stomach.  It may buy them a little more time, but in reality may only prolong their  agony, than light up  their futures.

The better solution to reduce winter starvation is by paying more attention to maintaining the amount and  integrity  of the habitat used by wildlife. If people continue to move into the WUI zone (wildlife – urban -interface) so they can get closer to nature, it only increases encroachment and reduces what is available for critters, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  What we do to the land has far more repercussions than what we can do with artificially trying to save wildlife.

Bambi should not be coddled by well-meaning, but ineptly armed humans flinging poison tipped sentimental arrows towards the predatory effects of climate.   Forget the hay.  Nature does a fine job without our prying and poking. Lets just be sure there is plenty of healthy land left for nature to do her work.

 Rivers make good medicine with us, we make good medicine with rivers.

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