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Winter wildlife update: Managers in North Dakota, northwest Minnesota assess winter’s impact on deer and other wildlife

The lack of snowfall in the western half of North Dakota also has been good for pheasants, a nonnative species that struggles during winters with sustained cold and deep snow. Neither condition has been prevalent this winter in the state’s prime pheasant country.

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A trio of North Dakota deer feed in the snow in this undated photo. Deer in much of North Dakota have fared well this winter. Eastern North Dakota had a snowy start to winter, but recent snowfall has been scarce, and much of the western half of the state has little to no snow. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

There’s still time for a setback, but winter appears to be on the downward track. That’s good news for wildlife in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, where deer especially appear to be coming through the winter of 2019-20 in decent shape, wildlife managers say.

“Deer populations in our neck of the woods are looking really good,” said Brian Prince, wildlife resource management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake. “Not that we haven’t lost some fawns. I have heard reports of some folks finding fawns that were curled up dead, but that’s not atypical with our climate.

Brian Prince
Brian Prince, wildlife resource management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Devils Lake.
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department

“It’s something we see every year. Some of those fawns just don’t have the energy stores to make it through the winter.”


The western edge of his work district from Rugby up through Rolla, N.D., hasn’t had much snow all winter, Prince said. And while areas closer to Grand Forks have more snow, it’s not as bad as some years, he said.

Much of western North Dakota is snow-free and has been most of the winter, while the eastern half of the state hasn’t had significant snowfall since January. In addition, this winter hasn’t offered the extended cold periods that sometimes occur.

Deer also are taking advantage of abundant standing corn that remains after last fall’s extremely wet conditions hampered harvest, Prince said.

“I’ve seen lots of deer utilizing those areas, both for cover and for nutrients, and I think they’re going to make it through in really good condition,” Prince said. “There’s not much loss in our population, and I think we’re set up for good deer production, as well.”

Prince said he’s only gotten a couple of depredation complaints of deer raiding farmers’ hay and other livestock feed supplies and a similar number of turkey complaints.

“In the late ’90s (and) early 2000s, there were some years when it wasn’t odd to be dealing with 40 different people,” Prince said. “This has been very light, but we kind of suspected that, with the setup we had with all of the corn on the landscape. It wasn't’ anything we were hoping for from an agricultural standpoint, either, but it definitely didn’t hurt our deer population.”

The lack of snowfall in the western half of the state also has been good for pheasants, a nonnative species that struggles during winters with sustained cold and deep snow. Neither condition has been prevalent this winter in the state’s prime pheasant country.

“Most of the state, the pheasants have no excuse not to be in good body condition,” said R.J. Gross, upland game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “Pheasants in the southwest, they needed an easy winter; we’re trying to keep as many as we can.”


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R.J. Gross, upland game biologist, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Pheasants in southeast North Dakota likely suffered the most because of heavy snowstorms earlier in the winter, Gross said.

“They probably didn’t fare as well down there,” he said. “I can’t say that 100% until we do our crowing counts -- that will give us a better idea -- and late summer roadside counts.”

Despite the promising scenario to this point of the winter, storms in late March and April can hammer pheasants and other wildlife, at least in localized areas.

“We call those ‘wildlife killers,’ ” Gross said. “They can dump a foot of heavy, wet snow. Those are the bad ones.”

Snowy start

In northwest Minnesota, the winter started off snowy, especially in the Bemidji area, but the past several weeks have been mostly dry, and the snowpack is settling, said John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.


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John Williams, Northwest Region wildlife supervisor, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Bemidji. Minnesota DNR

“We had quite a bit of snow up to the first part of January, and we haven’t gotten anything since then,” Williams said.

There has been an uptick in the number of deer killed by wolves as a freeze-thaw cycle of warm days followed by colder nights puts a crust on the snow, making deer more vulnerable to the canine predators.

“We have had a lot of wolf kills right in our backyard almost,” said Randy Prachar, manager of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area northwest of Roseau, Minn. “We’ve seen where wolves have gotten into deer.”

The impact likely won’t be significant in terms of its overall effect on local deer populations, Prachar said.

“I think our wolf population is very healthy, but our deer population is just fine,” he said.

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Randy Prachar, manager of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area. Brad Dokken / Forum News Service


The Winter Severity Index, a measure based on the number of days with temperatures of 0 degrees F or colder and days with at least 15 inches of snow on the ground, as of March 4 was 50 or lower at Roseau River and other parts of far northwest Minnesota.

Areas accumulate a point for each day either of those conditions are met, so the WSI potentially can increase by 2 points a day.

Generally, the DNR considers a WSI of less than 100 by season’s end to be a mild winter, while values of 180 or more indicate a severe winter.

“Our WSI as of a couple of days ago was 50, and that was all temperature points,” Prachar said.

“We’re still pretty much in the throes of winter, but a week of warm weather might push us into the early part of spring. Deer are moving around good, there’s no restriction on their activity, and I don’t expect there’ll be much for winter effects.”

Not all of northwest Minnesota has had it so easy. As of March 4, there were pockets closer to Bemidji with 100 WSI points or more.

“It’s all snow (points),” Williams said. “We just haven’t had any extended period of that 20 below we typically can get in the winter.

“Unless we get an extended winter like we had in 2014, we’re probably in for either a mild to at least low-moderate winter severity, I would say, this year ” in northwest Minnesota, he added.”But before you can count your chickens on that, it really depends on when (winter) goes away.”


Northeast Minnesota woes

The toughest conditions by far are in far northeast Minnesota, where deer have faced snow up to 3 feet deep and are running out of stored energy reserves, John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune and Forum News Service reported.

“The tank is running out of gas. The fat reserves are gone,” Tom Rusch, DNR wildlife biologist in Tower, Minn., told Myers. “Each day a deer has to endure trudging through chest-deep snow is a significant drain on its physiological condition.”

Deer are beginning to die as a result, and more whitetails likely will perish the longer winter persists. The WSI as of late February in the Tower area already was at 130 and could hit 160 or even 170 by winter’s end, Rusch said.

“That’s pretty severe,” Rusch said. “We don’t have that many winters on record over 160.”

Signs of spring

Still, signs of spring are appearing, even in far northwest Minnesota near the Manitoba border. Prachar, the Roseau River WMA manager, said a pair of trumpeter swans was spotted flying over refuge headquarters last weekend. Swans and a few Canada geese also have been spotted on the WMA’s managed pools, Prachar said.

“Some horned larks have shown up -- they’re pretty much a calendar bird,” he said. “This is the first winter I remember seeing eagles every month of the year. I don’t remember seeing eagles here in January before, and it wasn’t just once and done. There were a couple-three different places where we saw them, so that’s different.”

Anecdotally, Prachar said last fall’s extreme wet conditions, followed by ice that covered normally bare ground, likely affected small mammal populations. Raptors and other predators that feed on smaller mammals have been scarce this winter as a result, he said.

“I was out on an owl survey last weekend, and I didn’t hear anything until I got into areas with a little more upland where you would have had those critters,” Prachar said. “You have those short-term effects, but this time it happened in the fall rather than spring. That kind of changes things a little bit, and that would be different than what we normally see.


“Our winter, I don’t think it’s too bad, but it’s (conditions) leading into winter that sort of changed things probably more than what we’re used to seeing.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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