Originally Published: November 29, 2007 8:31 p.m.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department is urging people feeding elk and other wildlife to change their behavior before wildlife pay the price.
For the second time in two months, Game and Fish personnel had to remove a trash can lid from the neck of an elk in a Hualapai Mountain community near Kingman.
"I was asked if there is a type of trash can that can prevent this," said Zen Mocarski, public information officer with the department's Kingman office. "The type of trash can lid is not the problem. Feeding is the problem. There should be nothing in a trash can an elk would find desirable.
"If you jingle a bag of chips, these elk walk up looking for handouts. Chips, hay, candy bars ... none of this has nutritional value to an elk."
Mocarski cited a recent incident for those unwilling to accept this fact. Deer in a national park apparently starved to death. A necropsy determined that plastic, paper wrappers, tin foil, and other assorted items clogged their digestive systems.
"People loved those deer to death," Mocarski stated.
Mocarski added that the impact of feeding goes beyond tranquilizing the animals to remove trash can lids.
It is also using taxpayer dollars that could go elsewhere. The time necessary to find the elk, tranquilize it, remove the lid, tag its ear, and wait for the animal to become alert was six hours per person, which does not factor in the cost of the drugs and gasoline.
"That's time personnel can spend actually managing wildlife," said Bob Posey, supervisor in the Kingman office. "These situations take away from personnel conducting surveys, patrolling, and conducting various other responsibilities such as checking water catchments."
The use of tranquilizing drugs is inherently dangerous, Mocarski noted, and the possible death of the animal is always a concern for Game and Fish personnel.
"We have been fortunate in both instances that things worked out well," he said. "The bottom line is that feeding is dangerous, both for the animals and potentially the public."
He noted that elk can exhibit dangerously erratic behavior during the rutting season.
Feeding wildlife also creates an easy hunting ground for predators and changes normal animal behavior, he said.
"And none of it is necessary," he said. "There is no need to feed."
Jeff Pebworth, wildlife program manager at the Kingman office, said people who believe they are helping wildlife by feeding them are mistaken.
"It's simply not true," he said. "Start with the fact that by feeding these animals they are not getting their required nutrients, then move on to them losing their ability to forage naturally, and end up with situations like these."
Mocarski said planting native vegetation will allow the public to view the elk, but this type of feeding will not result in the animals losing their ability to forage and the animals will fulfill their nutritional requirements.
Mocarski stressed that direct feeding can be dangerous or even deadly to wildlife.
"Feeding results in the vast majority of human-wildlife conflicts," Mocarski said. "In the end, those feeding wait for the department to fix the problem created by those actions. If an animal dies, those individuals won't accept that responsibility."
Truly helping wildlife requires time and muscle, he said. He advises people that, rather than feeding wildlife, they can participate in volunteer opportunities such as water catchment repairs and monitoring.
In addition, conservation organizations around the state would welcome additional assistance in their efforts to help wildlife, Mocarski said.
Leaving pet food outside and trash in the open are examples of unintentional feeding and can lead to problems with skunks, raccoons, and a variety of other scavengers, Mocarski added.
"It can be difficult not to feed wildlife," Mocarski said. "But, it is possible. By being responsible in our human behaviors, we can keep the wild in wildlife."
People who come across wildlife that is obviously injured should not handle the animal. Instead, contact the department at (602) 942-3000 or one of the six regional offices and describe the situation in detail.
For those interested in volunteering, contact Les Bell, volunteer coordinator with Game and Fish, at (928) 789-3680.