Deer doing OK, but crucial time of winter looms

Harley Camperud has lived west of Thompson, N.D., all of his life, and he's seen his share of bad winters. But through Camperud's eyes, at least, this winter ranks as a tough one for deer. "The snow is so terribly deep that it's really hard for t...

Deer feeding
G Deer congregate at a feeding site west of Thompson, N.D., earlier this month. Harley Camperud said he started feeding the deer in an effort to keep them from crossing state Highway 15 and getting hit by vehicles. Camperud said 15 to 20 deer have been hit so far this winter while trying to access feed a livestock producer on the other side of the highway had placed for his cattle. Camperud, who set up a trail camera at the site, said he was reluctant to start feeding but felt he had to do something beca...
Herald file photo

Harley Camperud has lived west of Thompson, N.D., all of his life, and he's seen his share of bad winters.

But through Camperud's eyes, at least, this winter ranks as a tough one for deer.

"The snow is so terribly deep that it's really hard for them to get down to the ground to get anything to eat," Camperud, a retired farmer who runs an auction and gravel business, said this week. "The snowpack out there has got to be 2 feet everywhere."

With natural food in short supply, Camperud said deer routinely were getting hit while trying to cross state Highway 15 to eat sugar beet tailings (broken or damaged beets not suitable for sugar production) a farmer on the north side of the road had placed for his livestock.

"I've seen up to 50-60 deer at a time crossing the highway, and I know there's been 15 to 20 killed there this winter, so that's kind of a bad deal," Camperud said.


To reduce the risk of deer-vehicle collisions, Camperud cleared the snow from a gravel pit he owns on the south side of the highway and placed a load of beet tailings and grain screenings for the deer.

At times, Camperud said, there've been more than 100 deer feeding at the site, and a trail camera he placed nearby confirms its attractiveness.

"I've fed deer off and on for years, but this is the worst I've seen in a long time," he said. "I'm sure it's going to affect the population a lot. Our doe population was way down anyway, and they probably won't be having the twins and the triplets like they would have had otherwise."

Better than last year

Still, despite the amount of snow in both North Dakota and Minnesota, wildlife managers in the two states say the winter to date hasn't been too tough on the deer. March and April are crucial months, though, and severe weather could change that outlook.

"So far, it seems for the most part deer are doing OK," said Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "I guess time will tell."

Gary Rankin, district game warden for the Game and Fish Department in Larimore, N.D., said last week that he was starting to see deer bunched up. That often happens as winter progresses and food supplies become scarcer.

"It really doesn't look good out in the open, but we've had very few depredation calls," Rankin said. "That's good. I'm not sure it's an indication of deer numbers being down. Maybe people with alfalfa hay are more tolerant of fewer animals, but I'm sure the deer are getting hungry out there right now."


That hunger can prove fatal, and getting hit by a car or truck isn't the only risk deer face. Mike Morgan, manager of the Thompson Farmers Co-op Elevator, said he's heard of seven or eight deer that have been hit by trains along the railroad tracks within a mile of town.

"I had a guy who lives a mile north call and ask what's going on with all the deer getting hit," Morgan said. "I'm guessing they're pawing for food on the tracks, probably grain dribbling out of the cars when they come by."

Pros and cons

North Dakota doesn't regulate the feeding of deer, but Minnesota discourages the practice. Feeding deer is illegal in a large chunk of northwestern Minnesota, where an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis led the state to ban the practice in 2007. And earlier this month, officials from the Department of Natural Resources said they were planning to have a bill introduced in the Minnesota Legislature to implement a statewide ban from Sept. 1 through Dec. 31 as part of ongoing efforts to combat illegal baiting during deer season.

Jensen, the state Game and Fish Department biologist, said private feeding is "admirable," but problems can occur when it becomes excessive. There's also an increased disease risk when so many deer congregate in a small area.

"Once deer learn there's going to be food in a particular area, they come back the next year," Jensen said. "And when they come back, they bring their fawns so instead of 10 deer, they're feeding 20. And the next year, it's the mother and the daughter and the granddaughter and all of their kids. Once you start feeding, the problem can expand exponentially."

Camperud said he was reluctant to start feeding deer on his property west of Thompson but felt he had to do something, if only to stem the frequency of deer-vehicle collisions.

"I hate to start it because once you start, you can't quit," he said. "They become so dependent on it that you have to continue until it thaws. I hope it does some good."


Less severe

So how does this winter compare with last year? In Minnesota, the Winter Severity Index, a measure tallying the number of days below zero and the number of days snow depths exceed 15 inches, is noticeably lower than last year at this time. In early February, the WSI was 53 at Thief Lake and 47 at Roseau River wildlife management areas in northwestern Minnesota, compared with 74 at Thief Lake and 87 at Roseau River in early February 2009.

Readings between 100 and 180 are considered moderate, the DNR said.

"We had fairly rigorous weather early, but then temperatures moderated in January, and it got into the 30s," Paul Telander, regional wildlife manager for the DNR in Bemidji, said in a recent interview. "There is some crust in the woods, but I think deer are doing fine so far, based on what I've heard."

Winter also got a later start, which has lessened the impact of all the snow.

"Last year, winter started in late October, and this year, it really didn't start until the end of December, so that's another 50-60 days of mild conditions," Jensen said. "And that makes a big difference."

Brian Prince, wildlife resource management biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, said deer depredation complaints are on track to be down by about half from last winter in the northeastern district. That compares with a "steady stream" of complaints at other district offices such as Bismarck, Riverdale, Williston and Jamestown, Prince said.

He said the Devils Lake office hasn't received any calls about dead deer in fields or farmsteads, either, although such reports wouldn't be surprising.


"Low-density winter mortality is typical during winters like these," Prince said.

Pheasants also seem to be doing well across North Dakota, but as with deer, March and April are crucial months.

"I haven't had any major reports from anywhere -- field staff or landowners or sportsmen -- indicating any major losses of pheasants or any other upland game birds right at this time," said Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "If you'd asked me a couple of weeks ago, I'd have said we're at that pinnacle where things could have gone either way -- more snow would be bad, but if it moderated, we'd be alright.

"It moderated, and the times I've been out the last couple of weeks, hilltops have opened up, and the birds seem to be feeding OK.

"We're not out of the woods yet, but we're certainly in better shape than last year," Kohn said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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