A recent media release from the provincial government warned people of the dangers of trying to “help out” wild animals by providing food during the recent cold snap and heavy snow; and Frank Ritcey, the provincial coordinator for WildSafe BC, agrees.
In a wide-ranging talk with The Journal, Ritcey speaks about the hazards of feeding deer, why we feed the birds (and why it isn’t usually necessary), whether wolves could be in Ashcroft, the exploding rat population, and more.
When it comes to feeding deer (or other ungulates, such as moose or elk) Ritcey says bluntly “Don’t feed them. Unfortunately, it’s a big issue we have. There are a number of problems with feeding deer, and we do have people who want to feed them.
“They’re ruminants who chew their cud, like cows. They’re primarily browsers, and their stomachs are specially designed to digest their food, which is usually woodier plants. In winter a big part of their diets is lichen, which the wind blows down from trees, and the deer exist on that. I have a lot of trail camera footage showing deer eating lichen.
“They’ll browse on sagebrush, and in the Ashcroft area they’ll eat cactus: they’ll paw out underneath it and eat the roots.”
Ritcey says that deer don’t do well eating high-protein foods that people supply, such as alfalfa or grains. “The deer become food-conditioned, and start to require that food we give them as part of their caloric intake. They start to rely on us.”
Something Ritcey hears is “Well, if it’s not good for them, why do they eat it?” His reply is “Why do we eat so many chocolates at Christmas, when we know they’re not good for us?”
He adds that providing food for deer encourages more problems. “People say ‘Aw’ at first, when deer are in their neighbourhood; but they’re not saying that after the deer have been there for weeks. If they’re in your neighbourhood all year, they become a nuisance. They’ll eat anything we have to offer, and they like just about everything. There’s no such thing as a deer-resistant plant.
“And they can become very defensive of their fawns in spring. Smaller dogs have been killed by deer. It’s a problem that creeps up on you. If you get too many deer, too often, you’re faced with getting rid of them. It’s better to get ahead of the problem.”
When told of a report that a wolf was seen on the Mesa in Ashcroft, Ritcey doesn’t discount the possibility. “They’ve been seen on the grasslands north of Kamloops, and we’re getting more and more sightings. Wolves can cover an incredible distance in a day. It’s nothing for them to do 20 kilometres in a day, so it’s no problem for them to come down from the timber to the grasslands.”
He says that anyone who sees a wolf will know it. “Wolves are much stockier and squarer than coyotes, which have a very sharp look. And they’re definitely around, although it’s unusual in recent history to have them come down to the grasslands.”
Ritcey says there has been a benefit for humans in taking wolves out of the landscape, but there have been repercussions. “We have a habit of removing wolves, which allowed the coyotes to spread westward with us. We got rid of their predator and they have a good food source. That impacts the fox population, because the coyotes predate on foxes, so it’s been a double whammy.”
He says that trail cam footage he has taken at the grasslands near Lac du Bois shows the wolf population there taking out coyotes. “It’s nice to see wolves back in the landscape, but if they develop a taste for cattle it will be a real issue. As long as they’re not targeting domestic animals, they won’t be an issue.”
Switching from wolves to birds, Ritcey says that while there are some occasions in winter when birds need feeding, “We do it because it makes us feel better. For the most part, birds have evolved to make do without us.” He adds that many people are rightly concerned about the number of rats attracted to bird feeders, so are getting rid of them. And he reminds people to take down their bird feeders at the end of winter, to prevent them becoming bear attractants.
“Bird seed has the highest caloric reward of any food. One kilo of bird feed has 7,000 calories.” He adds that in this region, 14 species of animals have been recorded as being attracted to bird seed, including coyotes, deer, and rodents, which attract predators of their own.
This brings us round to talk of raccoons, which were virtually unknown in this area until relatively recently, but which have quickly become a pest. “Raccoons have always been around here, but not in such numbers,” says Ritcey, explaining that they have been making their way into the B.C. Interior from the Lower Mainland. He saw his first raccoon in Kamoops in 1975.
“We’ve had a number of mild winters here, and they’ve established a toe hold. There’s even been one spotted in Prince George. They’re cute at first, but then they become a nuisance. They kill cats, and can be very nasty.”
There has been plenty of talk about the exploding rat population in Kamloops, and Ritcey says he’d be surprised if we don’t have the same issue locally. “We’re getting more and more reports of rats from Kamloops south, and from as far east as Revelstoke.”
He attributes the explosion of the rat population to a couple of mild winters previous to this year’s. “And more people are keeping compost, which makes a good nest for rats in winter, allowing them to get through a winter they might otherwise not make it through.” He notes that while a wild rat has a lifespan of about a year, one pair of rats can produce 900 progeny within 12 months.
“They’re really good at reproducing. If you let the rat population make it through a winter in bigger numbers, you’ll have a larger rat population. This colder winter should help, because rats will have a harder time making it through; they’ll have to put so much energy into keeping warm. But if they have a place of refuge, and a food supply, they’re likely to make it.”