Feeding wild deer and raccoons is being banned in Bellingham city limits over concerns that doing so isn’t good for the animals, or the people who are affected by the activity.
The City Council voted 6-1 on Monday to prohibit the intentional feeding of deer and raccoons. Council member April Barker was the no vote.
The new rule is expected to go into effect in about a month.
The City Council is responding to residents frustrated by neighbors who purposefully feed deer, attracting them in unnaturally large numbers and exacerbating problems that come with a burgeoning deer population.
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“We get emails constantly about this,” Council member Gene Knutson said.
But when neighbors complained about someone feeding deer they didn’t have any recourse because the activity wasn’t prohibited.
It soon will be.
“The intent is not to starve animals or to eliminate animals,” said Mark Gardner, the city policy analyst who wrote the ordinance at the request of the City Council.
Deer thrive in Bellingham as they do in other similar low-density urban environments, city officials have said. Trees and shrubbery alternating with open spaces or lawns are optimal for the growth of plants that provide food for deer.
The new rule zeroes in on people who intentionally feed deer and, by extension, raccoon because both species are drawn by the same food. So, residents won’t get in trouble if deer eat their landscaping, fruit from their trees or greens from their garden, their pets’ food or seeds from their bird feeder, the city has said.
City officials said they want to educate people first. Repeat offenders face fines of $250.
“There needs to be a consequence to backstop it,” Council member Michael Lilliquist said.
The Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife as well as the Whatcom Humane Society will educate people about why they shouldn’t feed the wildlife.
As for enforcement, council members expect that most people will follow the new rule because they’re law-abiding.
They acknowledged that no agency has been designated for enforcement. Fish and Wildlife can’t do it because it’s a state agency, while Whatcom Humane Society and Bellingham Police Department’s code enforcement officers don’t, essentially, have the manpower to do so.
Questions over the city’s ability to enforce the new rule was one of the reasons why Barker voted against it, even as she acknowledged the deer feeding was a problem.
Residents of South Hill, where up to 20 deer have gathered because a neighbor is feeding them, support the council’s decision.
“These deer have plenty to eat. What’s the point of feeding the deer when we live in a natural environment around here? It’s not like we’re living in a place that’s lacking deer food,” said Judy Peck, a Ridgeway Drive resident.
When Peck moved into her house in March 2016, she invested in landscaping and bought plants that deer don’t care for as well as caging those plants that deer do like to eat, she wrote to the City Council.
“Even with this planning, we have had many deer grazing in our front yard on a regular basis. We actually counted 14 deer lounging in the front yard of the house across the street once and saw almost that many on several occasions,” she said.
Other neighbors also said they were frustrated by deer eating the plants in their yard, becoming aggressive and trampling their dogs and, in one case, running into the side of a car.
Feeding deer isn’t good for them, because the food they’re given is difficult for them to digest, state wildlife officials said, comparing giving deer fruit and grains to “feeding your children nothing but candy bars.”
Bringing a bunch of deer together also increases the chances of disease transmission, they said.
Attracting raccoons is an issue because they’re one of the primary carriers of rabies and their feces is commonly infected with roundworms, which can be a health hazard to humans and pets, according to Scott Witman, wildlife conflict specialist with Fish and Wildlife.
Witman said people tell him they feed wildlife because humans have had an impact on their territory and they feel they need to offset that.
And while the new rule is focused primarily on deer, the owner of Wild Bird Chalet in Bellingham feared it would harm her business.
Valeri Wade pointed to a section that defines intentional feeding as a person who “places food, or causes food to be placed, on the ground outdoors or in any outdoor area reachable by these animals.”
She said that would ban bird feeding because seeds fall from feeders. She wasn’t placated by the city’s assurances that such unintentional feeding wasn’t the city’s focus.
“There’s what’s in writing and there’s what people say,” Wade said. “Verbal contracts are kind of shaky.”
To which Lilliquist replied: “I think people are trying to read this too strongly one way or another.”