So far, so good: Wildlife coping with winter OK to this point

There's still a lot of winter left, but wildlife managers in North Dakota and Minnesota say deer and other wild critters seem to be doing OK. The consensus at this point is "so far, so good," but that could change if snowy conditions persist and ...

Deer in winter
Wildlife managers in North Dakota and Minnesota say they're not too concerned at this point about the impact of the snowy winter on deer and upland game birds such as pheasants. But that could change if the harsh conditions continue, they concede. (N.D. Game and Fish Department)

There's still a lot of winter left, but wildlife managers in North Dakota and Minnesota say deer and other wild critters seem to be doing OK.

The consensus at this point is "so far, so good," but that could change if snowy conditions persist and an extended cold wave descends.

According to Roger Johnson, big game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, there haven't been a lot of complaints so far about deer causing depredation problems for landowners.

Such complaints, he said, usually are a sign the animals are under stress.

"It certainly has the potential to be bad," Johnson said. "I expect that unless we get some breaks in the weather that it could be a long winter. I guess we can't do a whole lot about it."


According to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, the average snow depth in the state on Jan. 2 was 18.3 inches -- 7 inches deeper than the same time in 2010. And the Devils Lake area, hit with two heavy storms in December, has about 30 inches of snow on the ground.

The story is similar in Minnesota, where a wide swath from the western part of the state to the Arrowhead in the northeast, has an average snow depth of 18 inches to 24 inches. There's virtually no part of the state with bare ground this winter.

In northwestern Minnesota, the Winter Severity Index, which measures the number of days with at least 15 inches of snow and nights with temperatures of 0 degrees or colder, was at 19 on Jan. 9 at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area and 35 at Roseau River WMA.

That's likely representative of winter severity across the northwest.

Randy Prachar, manager of the two WMAs, said the index at Roseau River was higher because there was 17 inches of snow in the woods for the most recent index. Thief Lake had less than 15 inches, he said, so snow didn't factor into the index.

He said the index at Thief Lake is on par with last winter while Roseau River is higher.

"I think Thief is a little bit misleading, because we're right on the cusp," Prachar said. "I have noticed that we're seeing deer start to trail a little bit more and that's because of snow depths.

"Of course, when they do that, they're more restricted as far as what food they can get to."


Typically, a Winter Severity Index higher than 100 is rated as moderate to severe. That's especially true, Prachar said, when deep snow carries into April.

But a lot can change between now and then, said Lou Cornicelli, big game program manager for the Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul.

"We're generally OK," Cornicelli said. "It is a little early. We've had some significant weather earlier than we normally would, but deer specifically, they evolve in this kind of weather, and they generally do OK.

"It's not pleasant, but I think they should be fine."

Aerial check

In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department has begun its annual winter aerial surveys, in which biologists fly the same routes across the state each year to count deer and gather information on population trends.

The flights, Johnson said, also offer an indication of how the deer are doing. He said snow is crucial to conducting the survey.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," he said. "The snow is hard on the deer, but if you don't have it you can't see to count them, either."


The department uses the surveys to set license numbers for the fall hunting seasons.

The wild card this winter, Johnson said, is how deer will fare without the abundance of standing corn and sunflowers on the landscape. Wet falls in 2008 and 2009 prevented farmers from harvesting the crops, and the standing fields provided deer with an abundant and convenient food source.

That's not the case this year, and deer are forced to scrounge a bit more. Paul Freeman, northeastern district warden supervisor for the Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, said he's already seeing deer congregate near small-town elevators trying to find food.

"I'm pretty concerned," Freeman said. "I think they're in tough shape. It's going to get tougher from here on out, no doubt. They've got to walk on roads, and more and more will be getting clipped by vehicles. Natural food is basically covered up."

According to Johnson of Game and Fish, the best scenario would be for North Dakota's prevalent winds to blow the snow off hillsides and other places that might provide places for the deer to find food.

"If the snow doesn't get too hard, they can handle it pretty well," Johnson said. "It's probably better out in the open where the snow has blown off."

Cornicelli said he starts to get worried when there's deep snow and subzero temperatures for a month at a time. But in the Twin Cities metro area and points south, which had more snow than northern Minnesota going into Christmas, temperatures rose into the 40s over New Year's, and rain helped diminish the snowpack.

"We're not having those double combinations (of snow and cold), but it remains to be seen," Cornicelli said. "We lost a bunch of snow with that rain, and I don't think it made things any more difficult in terms of finding food."


If harsh conditions persist, fawns likely would suffer the most.

"We'd certainly see some fawn mortality," said Prachar, manager at Roseau River and Thief Lake. That happens most winters anyway, he said, but prolonged deep snow also could stress pregnant does and cause them to deliver fawns that are in poorer health.

"They might not survive, and then you start biting into next year's production," Prachar said. "You can get sort of a one-two punch, but we'll see how that goes. I would guess we're going to see some mortality out of last year's fawns unless we get one of those major thaws like we had last spring."

Pheasants: OK for now

North Dakota's pheasant population also seems to be doing OK. Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said he hasn't gotten any reports of dead pheasants.

Native upland birds such as sharptails and ruffed grouse are equipped to cope with severe winters, but pheasants, an introduced species, are susceptible to the elements without suitable habitat.

Kohn said he looked at a handful of roosters that were shot Jan. 2, the last day of North Dakota's pheasant season, in the Sheridan and northern Burleigh county areas northeast of Bismarck, and the birds appeared to be in pretty good shape.

"They were taken under some pretty snowy conditions," Kohn said. "They had a lot of fat on them, the crops were full, and it looked like they were spending a lot of time in sunflowers."


Jesse Beckers, North Dakota regional biologist for Pheasants Forever, said he continues to see lots of birds, and they seem to be doing well.

"The snow is soft yet, and people would be surprised how far pheasants can dig to get at food and grit," Beckers said. "As long as we don't get ice, we should be OK."

The big question, Kohn said, is whether the birds can find enough food to sustain themselves over the long haul.

"What the situation might be 60 or 70 days from now is always the unknown," Kohn said. "It's at the state right now where it can go either way.

"I think up to this point, there are no major problems, but the next two months will be critical, especially going into March. Winter came pretty early."

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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