Everyone knows that the most deadly animal in North America is the whitetail deer, accounting for more human deaths than any other creature. Of course, those deaths are, except in very rare exceptions, the result of deer/vehicle collisions and not actual attacks on people. Deer, after all, eat plants, forbs and grasses. They are herbivores in scientific vernacular. Everyone knows that.
Enter researchers Pete Squibb, a retired state biologist in Michigan who know runs Wildlife Solutions LLC, and his research partner, Brad Thurston, M.D.
Thurston, who has raised deer for many years had noticed the animals nosing around in meat and carcass piles from time to time and wondered with concerns about tuberculosis (TB) and chronic wasting disease (CWD) rising, if there was a possibility these diseases could actually be getting transmitted by deer sniffing at and possibly even eating the meat from dead, diseased animals.
Thurston isn’t the only outdoorsman who has made such observations over the years. Indeed, when the conversation came up, Outdoor Life Deputy Editor Gerry Bethge noted that he had seen lots of deer over the years nosing around gut piles, but assumed they were simply seeking out mushrooms, apples, etc.
Thurston discussed his observations with Squibb, which led to the biologist organizing an anecdotal study with some fellow trail camera message board users to observe deer around gut piles and carcasses. That study has been going on for 3 years now and this is what Squibb and his team found: Deer DO eat meat!
“Over the past three seasons, I’ve had 30 to 50 guys volunteer to help out using their homemade trail cameras,” says Squibb. “In that time, I had about 120 instances where cams were put on gut piles in 17 states…60 to 62 percent of which were visited by deer.”
His own efforts began when he placed a carcass behind his rural home and within three to four days, deer showed up and began stripping fat from the remains. This was during the cold of January.
In most instances, Squibb says, deer are usually the first to show up at a bait site. Perhaps because they are so prevalent and show a natural tendency toward being curious, but also it appears, looking for some nutrients to supplant their usual diets.
His research isn’t the first to reveal the whitetails—not necessarily carnivorous—but rather omnivorous diets. Squibb says scientists have long known about deer on the islands of Lake Michigan eating alewives that wash up on shore, and some cougar research has even revealed that the first animal to show up at a meat-heavy baitpile are often deer. One researcher has even recorded a deer eating eggs from a nest and attempting to run down hatchlings.
So does this mean that in states where baiting is legal, that gut piles are going to replace corn, beets or other vegetable-based foods? Not likely, but Squibb says what his research does show is that the matter needs to be studied more intensively and “scientifically” in order to determine how much this occurs among whitetail populations and if it is truly a legitimate source of disease transmission in areas where TB, CWD or even hemorrhagic disease is prevalent.
“Somebody should be looking at this a little harder,” says Squibb.