Artificial Feeding Causing Deaths in Pennsylvania Elk

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Pennsylvania Game Commission officials recently reported that there have been four cases involving elk that have died of rumen acidosis, which is directly related to artificial feeding that causes an abrupt change in an elk's diet that wreaks havoc with its digestive system. Feeding elk is illegal, as it causes problems by habituating elk to find food around homes and can be dangerous to those who attempt to feed elk by hand.

"So far, we have been able to document four cases of such deaths," said Dr. Walter Cottrell, Game Commission wildlife veterinarian. "There have been other deaths that we believed may have been caused by such feeding, but, in those cases the animal was either decomposed or other circumstances prevented it from obtaining the carcass in time for laboratory analysis to take place."

Dr. Cottrell explained that elk, as well as white-tailed deer, adapt to a winter diet of primarily woody vegetation and they will die of acidosis caused by a build up of lactic acid in the rumen, chambers of its four-part stomach that is responsible for fermentation of food. If they consume too much high-fermentable grain, such as corn, which is the most common artificial feed put out by local residents, the pH level falls quickly and a shock-like syndrome can occur.

Local residents have been issued citations for the illegal feeding. In one case, an elk was found lying dead on a pile of corn. In another case, a resident dragged the carcass of a dead elk into the woods in an attempt to conceal the situation.

"We need to have local residents and district justices understand that the well-intentioned individuals are actually killing elk," Dr. Cottrell said. "For those who truly enjoy seeing elk it is best for them to stop artificially feeding elk and other wildlife. It would be far more beneficial if they were to implement some form of habitat improvement producing cover to reduce weather-related stress or food in the form of digestible native plants on their property."

For more information on the problems associated with feeding deer and elk, please visit the Game Commission's website (www.pgc.state.pa.us), click on "Wildlife" in the left-hand column, scroll down and choose "Please, Don't Feed the Deer."