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Elk found dead from eating corn in northern Wisconsin

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Corn spills out of the digestive tract of an elk found dead Jan. 2, 2020 on private property near Tony in Rusk County. The landowner had put out corn with the intention of helping wildlife.

An elk was found dead Jan. 2 in northern Wisconsin after it ate corn put out by a landowner in a misguided attempt to help wildlife, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

The animal died from rumen acidosis, a direct result from eating the corn.

"(The landowner) thought he was doing animals a favor," said Kevin Wallenfang, DNR deer and elk ecologist. "He felt terrible after he learned what he caused."

The elk, a young bull, was part of a contingent of animals transferred from Kentucky to Wisconsin in April. It had been released in the Flambeau River State Forest.

It died on private property near Tony in Rusk County, southwest of the state forest.

The elk was wearing a GPS tracking collar that emitted a mortality signal in late December. 

The DNR contacted the landowner and obtained permission to access the site on Jan. 2. The animal was found in a bedded position near the base of a tree, its body bloated, according to a DNR report. 

No wounds or injuries were visible on external investigation. But as the DNR crew cut open the elk's body cavity, hundreds of corn kernels tumbled out of its digestive tract.

Rumen acidosis kills white-tailed deer, too.

The condition affects deer and elk when their diet is changed too rapidly from natural, high-fiber browse such as twigs to low-fiber, high-carbohydrate supplemental feeds such as corn, wheat and barley.

It inhibits or stops digestion in affected animals; rapid death can result even in deer and elk in otherwise good physical condition.

Since the winter of 2019-20 started cold and snowy in northern Wisconsin, more landowners than usual – including those without knowledge and experience – may be contemplating putting out food for wildlife.

It's not known how many other deer or elk may have been killed by supplemental feeding efforts this year in Wisconsin.

In the wake of the elk death in Rusk County, the DNR is sharing pertinent wildlife regulations as well as guidelines for winter deer feeding. Prior to starting any feeding, the DNR recommends people contact their local wildlife biologist.

"If done wrong, winter feeding can do more harm than good," reads the DNR handout on winter deer feeding. "Therefore, you need to be prepared to do it right or don't do it at all."

With regard to elk, it's important to know it's illegal to feed elk anywhere in Wisconsin.

The rule was put in place to prevent incidents such as the recent one near Tony, as well as because feeding was linked to elk-vehicle collisions when the animals repeatedly crossed highways to visit private properties where food was placed for wildlife, Wallenfang said.

If elk are hitting a bait pile or feeding site, it is the responsibility of the hunter or landowner to remove the food.

Baiting and feeding deer is also prohibited in most of Wisconsin by state law. The statute is intended to limit the spread of chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis.

The best approach to help deer survive a severe winter is to provide woody browse by dropping aspen or maple trees so the animals can access the twigs and buds from the tops, the DNR says.

If that is not possible, in areas feeding is legal the agency recommends putting out a deer mix in late February and continue through snow melt or until deer have dispersed to summer habitats.

Formulated deer food mixes of corn, alfalfa, oats, soybeans, molasses and several vitamins and minerals are the best choice, according to the DNR. Hay is not recommended, nor is corn alone.

Baiting and feeding deer is legal in Rusk County. The landowner reportedly did not know the elk was visiting the corn he placed on his property.

Wallenfang said the landowner, who was not cited for a violation and is not being identified, has pledged a donation to the state's elk program.

For more information on wildlife and wildlife feeding, visit dnr.wi.gov.