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Wildlife weathering the winter OK -- so far

A young deer forages in a wooded area of East Grand Forks this week. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
A small herd of deer beds down in a wooded area in East Grand Forks this week. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Deer and other wildlife continue to weather the winter of 2018-19 fairly well in North Dakota and Minnesota, but that could change if cold and snowy conditions persist through March and into April, wildlife managers say.

"It's a traditional Minnesota winter—the problem is we've gotten used to the other ones," said John Williams, northwest region wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji.

According to Brian Prince, district wildlife supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, the past couple of weeks have been more difficult for wildlife, but overall, deer in northeast North Dakota continue to find enough food by browsing in fields.

So far, the Devils Lake office has gotten only a handful of depredation complaints of critters congregating in farmyards to raid livestock feed supplies, Prince said; the breakdown is four deer complaints, three elk complaints and one wild turkey complaint.

The elk complaints all were in the Turtle Mountains, and the remaining complaints have been scattered around the district, including Edinburg, Rugby and Orrin, N.D., Prince said.

By comparison, the office will get 30 to 40 depredation complaints during bad winters, he said.

"It's been pretty light on that end compared to other years," Prince said of deer and other wildlife complaints. "They're starting to feel the stress of the cold and the snow, but for the most part, they're still behaving themselves pretty good."

Game and Fish staff in other parts of the state have reported similar trends.

"It is starting to pick up now over the last couple of weeks with additional snow and the cold continuing to sustain," said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "It's kind of evenly spread out, and each district is starting to pick up a handful here and there."

Winter by the numbers

In Minnesota, the Winter Severity Index—a tally of days with 15 inches or more of snow on the ground and days with air temperatures of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder—was at 50 or lower for most of the state except the Arrowhead as of Feb. 6, the DNR reported on its website.

That falls into the category of an easy winter, but given those parameters, areas can accumulate 2 points daily if conditions are right, and the number is starting to creep up across much of the state, the DNR's Williams said.

The WSI in the Arrowhead was in the 50 to 79 range, the DNR reported.

Snow depth across northwest Minnesota ranges from 16 to 24 inches in most areas, Williams said. In North Dakota, an interactive map from the National Weather Service showed snow depths Thursday of 16 to 30 inches across much of the state, with lesser amounts in the southwest and a pocket of 30 to 40 inches in far northeast North Dakota and adjacent northwest Minnesota.

The highest WSI in northwest Minnesota as of Monday was 63 at Norris Camp, headquarters of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn., Williams said. That number now is closer to 70.

"Right now, the index isn't pointing to something that's going to likely be a severe winter," he said. "What we've said in the past is usually, when you have values of 100 or better by mid-February, you could potentially be looking at some tough times depending, of course, on how long or how short the remainder of the winter is."

An index of 180 or higher is considered a severe winter. For perspective, the WSI at Red Lake WMA soared into the 220 range during the last nasty winter in 2013-14, Williams said.

At that level, the combination of cold and snow takes its toll on deer, he said.

"You burn energy staying warm, but with snow and cold temperatures, you burn a lot more energy because you're restricted on movements," Williams said. "So, it compounds as things get more severe on both of those accounts."

Few complaints

As in the Devils Lake area, depredation complaints in northwest Minnesota remain relatively low, but there have been scattered problems across the region, the DNR's Williams said. That was the overall assessment from area DNR wildlife managers in the region early this week, he said.

"What I heard from area staff was there was not a lot of yarding behavior developing just yet but that deer were starting to congregate in a few areas, especially around any food sources and things like that," Williams said. "So right now, so far so good."

In the Devils Lake area, Prince said game wardens have responded to an uptick in deer-vehicle collisions west of Devils Lake in recent days. That suggests deer could be on the move in search of new food sources.

"This situation in particular, they're starting to head toward the elevator west of town a little more than they had been, so there's people finding them with vehicles," Prince said.

The deep snow actually benefits native upland game birds such as ruffed grouse and sharptails, which burrow into the snow to roost at night and when temperatures plummet. Pheasants aren't adapted to the harsh winters but to this point seem to be doing OK in North Dakota, said Williams, the Game and Fish wildlife chief.

"So far, they appear to be holding their own," he said. "The thing that hurts pheasants the most are extreme blizzards, especially in the spring. But extreme cold over a period of time obviously takes its toll, too."

Small bird impacts

Less certain is the impact on small birds. Grand Forks birding expert Dave Lambeth said bird activity at his feeders has been "quite heavy" all winter. Redpolls have been especially abundant in recent weeks, but the species he's feeding also include juncos, two pileated woodpeckers, a flicker and hairy woodpeckers.

Still, winters such as this have to take a toll on smaller birds, Lambeth said.

"There's got to be, I think, some mortality," he said. "It's hard to be specific because a lot of times, we just don't know."

The region might be in the grips of the worst winter in several years, but the bird world already offers signs of spring, Lambeth said. Great horned owls will be nesting any day, if they're not already.

You take your victories anywhere you can find them these days.

"Nature is kind of cruel," Lambeth said. "But I guess the good news is most of our birds are well adapted to winter, and they know how to handle it."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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