Starting today, Bambi better keep his distance.
This weekend, a new state law increases the potential cost of deer snacks set out by well-meaning humans. Feeding deer within 300 feet of a public road becomes illegal statewide, punishable by a $50 fine.
"It seems kind of harsh at first glance because I know some people really think they're doing a good thing by feeding the deer near their homes," said Peggy Santillo, an Amherst Town Board member and chairwoman of the town's Deer Management Task Force.
"But it definitely can cause major problems," she added.
The new law, signed Aug. 5 by Gov. Pataki, aims primarily at reducing the number of accidents involving vehicles hitting deer.
Local authorities, though, see other benefits.
The more that deer lose their fear of humans, the riskier their lives become, they point out. Much of the "food" people put out has little or no nutritional value for deer, experts also note.
James R. Snider, a senior DEC wildlife biologist, said the new law might not go far enough.
"People shouldn't feed deer, but if they do, this tells them to keep it at least 300 feet away from roadways. Personally, I'd feel better if it were prohibited altogether," he said.
"I'm delighted with (the new law) for a lot of reasons," said Marilyn Bensley of Alden, a leader of Animal Advocates of Western New York and a state-licensed nuisance wildlife control officer who specializes in deer.
Artificial feeding "domesticates them so they don't have a fear of people," and that often has tragic consequences for the deer because it draws them into harm's way in the form of cars, dogs, or angry, fearful neighbors, she said.
She recalled an incident in an Alden neighborhood a few years ago when two young deer were destroyed by conservation officers. The animals, which had escaped as fawns from a wildlife rehabilitator, were "adopted" and fed by neighbors, particularly one family.
Neighborhood children played with the fawns, but they became friskier, rougher playmates as they grew. One day, a little girl apparently was head-butted and knocked down, a frightened parent called authorities, and the two young deer were killed with tranquilizer darts, Ms. Bensley said.
"It seems there's always somebody who likes to feed the deer and always somebody next door who doesn't, and that's where problems start," she said.
"A deer is superbly suited to acquiring its own food," she added. "Trouble is, when man intervenes and feeds them, adult deer pass it along to the fawns, and they lose their ability to acclimate to the wild because they become accustomed to being fed."
Ms. Bensley said a couple of spots on Tillman Road in Clarence have become a hazard for unwary motorists because of people feeding deer.
Many leave "bread, rolls, potato chips," none of which have any nutritional value for deer. Ms. Bensley said she stopped recently, and a deer approached her car.
"If that's not a setup for an accident, I don't know what is," she said.
The legislation arose "from the fact that there are about 10,000 deer-car accidents in this state each year, and the number is growing," said State Sen. Raymond A. Meier, a Republican from the Town of Western, near Rome, and co-sponsor of the measure.
"It's a terrible problem," agreed Robert C. Brown of the Irondequoit Deer Action Committee, a citizen group that, for years, has been pushing for deer population-control measures in the Durand-Eastman Park area of Rochester.
Amherst Police Chief John B. Askey said the law would have no effect on the town's deer bait-and-shoot program -- if the town complies with court-ordered environmental-impact studies and the shooting program resumes.
Police don't set up their bait stations and sharpshooters anywhere near a road, Askey said.
The burden of enforcing the amendment to the state Conservation Law falls on conservation officers.