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Doug Leier: For wildlife, winter can be a struggle for survival

The best thing humans can do to help wildlife survive winter is establish habitat that will provide some decent shelter.

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Many animals have adaptations that help them get through winter.
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.

WEST FARGO – I quit blaming Mother Nature years ago for nasty weather and started pointing the finger at Old Man Winter. Not that it mattered, but it seemed fair, even though we have no control over the weather.

For man and beast on the prairie, a winter that starts late and ends early with a few drifts of life-bearing moisture and short cold snaps mixed in is about as much as we can ask for. Anyone who’s grown up around here knows we adjust to the cold and the snow. From warming up the truck a little, to making sure a shovel and winter survival gear are packed for every trip.

But what about the critters?

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Many animals have adaptations that help them get through winter, but in some years, even those natural defenses are not a sure hedge against death.

Some have thick winter coats, and their metabolism slows down. Bears hibernate. Sharp-tailed grouse have feathers out to their toes and other feathers that protect their nostrils from driven snow. Rabbits have large, fur-covered feet that help them move rapidly over deep snow.

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Many bird species, of course, migrate south. A few mammals may migrate, as well. Pronghorn on occasion will move from North Dakota into South Dakota, Wyoming or Montana in search of food that is not covered by snow. Elk in other more mountainous states will move from high elevations to wintering grounds in valleys.

The hard truth is, species unable to acclimate or evolve with winters no longer occupy northern latitudes. It’s just the way nature works. The smart and strong survived, and the others, well … they weren’t so fortunate.

In some winters, however, it’s even a struggle for the smart and the strong. And that’s where humans can help.

No, I’m not talking about providing winter food for wildlife, like putting out corn for pheasants or hay for deer. What’s much more effective over the long-term is establishing habitat that will afford native wildlife some decent shelter during winter. If animals don’t need to burn so much energy to stay warm, they don’t need to find as much food.

Besides creating or preserving habitat, people can help animals conserve energy by simply keeping their distance during winter.

Many of us like to get out and enjoy what winter has to offer. We hike, ski, snowmobile, bird-watch and photograph and often we do this in or near wildlife habitat. The best thing we can do for any animals that might be around, is to keep disturbance to a minimum.

For motorized machines such as snowmobiles, staying on designated trails is important. Cutting through cattail marshes or undisturbed woods can frighten mammals and birds into the open. Not only do they needlessly have to burn energy, but they might be more accessible to predators.

Even cross-country skiers and hikers can interrupt an animal’s daily fight for survival, but machines can move the seemingly chance encounter to another level. Most often, these encounters are by coincidence, and the skiers, snowmobilers or ATV drivers do their best to move on.

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In a very few instances, however, the reaction is just the opposite and the snowmobiler, for whatever reason, takes off and pursues an animal. This is illegal, whether the intent is to kill the animal, or “just to have some fun.”

Giving chase with a machine not only stresses the animal, but also gives the activity involved a bad name. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department encourages anyone witnessing such an action to report it as soon as possible to law enforcement or the Report All Poachers hotline at (701) 328-9921.

Fox, coyotes, deer, pheasants, rabbits and all other wildlife that endure our winters should get special consideration during this time of year. We like to be out in the woods or riding along rivers or snowshoeing across the prairie, and that can mean incidental meetings with wildlife. That’s a big part of the reason we go outside. The key is to enjoy the moment, and then move on.

Please take a moment and consider the reality of what critters endure during winter and adjust your activities accordingly.

Doug Leier is an outreach biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Reach him at dleier@nd.gov.
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