Wildlife staying on top of our snowy winter

Mar. 3—NEW LONDON — The early arrival of snow and the ample snow pack that has persisted through much of this winter have made deer and pheasants very visible to many, leading some to wonder how hard this winter is on wildlife.

The answer is not bad really. While there are locations where the winter has taken a toll on some deer and pheasants, overall the populations of both game species have not been significantly harmed, according to Cory Netland and Curt Vacek, area wildlife managers with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in the New London and Appleton offices, respectively.

The Winter Severity Index for much of the region, a measure that considers snow depth and cold, is around 50 for much of the area. (See attached map). There are areas with a WSI in the 51 to 75 range in portions of northern Kandiyohi, western Meeker, central Swift and Chippewa and in the Minnesota River Valley.

Typically, there is not a concern until the WSI tops 75 and 100, according to Netland. There are portions of northeastern Minnesota where the WSI is climbing over 100.

Without a doubt, this winter's snow pack has made things rougher for both deer and pheasants. Total snowfall totals this season are running 2- to 3-feet above average for this time of year in much of west central Minnesota.

Deer have also had to contend with ice-crusted snow, forcing them to expend more energy when foraging for food, Netland pointed out.

He's had a few reports of dead fawns and one buck, which is not unusual in any winter at this point.

The early, deep snow led deer to congregate and kept them largely to the trails they had made. That's made them more visible.

The other reason people are seeing deer is because deer numbers are relatively high, Netland pointed out.

Netland's work area includes Kandiyohi, Meeker and Chippewa counties. There was some herding up after the early, heavy snow, but the deer began spreading out and dispersing when temperatures improved in January and early February. He's not seen deer congregate in the winter as much as once was the case, he said.

Vacek's work area includes Big Stone, Lac qui Parle and Swift counties, with more open landscape. That has led to deer congregating in areas where habitat and winter cover is available. He said he's had 10 complaints of deer depredation from landowners near the winter congregation areas as a result. That compares to one or two depredation complaints in most winters.

There were between a dozen to 20 deer that were found dead near the elevator in Milan earlier this winter. Vacek said it's estimated that a hundred or so deer congregated near the elevator earlier this winter to scavenge waste corn.

He suspects that the deer that died had been late comers to the site and had been browsing exclusively on twigs and woody matter until they joined the herd at the elevator. For these later comers, the sudden consumption of corn likely caused what is known as acidosis, and caused their deaths, he said.

Pheasants were very visible along roadways earlier this winter due to the snow. That's made them more vulnerable to vehicle collisions, but the wildlife managers said they are hearty creatures and more than capable of handling what winter has dealt so far. Vacek has opened up some of the pheasants he found that appeared to have been killed by vehicles along roadways. All had fat reserves, so it's obvious they are finding food, he said.

Netland said it is very difficult to starve a pheasant. An individual bird can go as long as two weeks without a bite of food.

The bigger danger for pheasants is ahead. They are vulnerable to ice and other storms where they get wet before temperatures suddenly plummet. Netland said there are records in the wildlife office from blizzards in 1969 and other years where crews picked up dead pheasants along fence lines. Severe storms can literally freeze a pheasant or freeze up its nostrils and cause asphyxiation, he explained.

But overall, the biggest determinant of how the pheasant population will look is the nesting season in spring. Netland and Vacek are confident that pheasant numbers going into the nesting season will be more than adequate to produce a good crop of new birds, provided spring weather cooperates.

The wildlife managers discourage people from feeding pheasants, as it can cause more harm than good. Feeding pheasants makes them susceptible to predators and disease. Pheasants also become dependent on the feed and can starve if the feeding is not continued until winter's end.

There is always wildlife mortality in winter, and this year is really no different than most others, said the wildlife managers. "Winter is never easy for them, right?" said Vacek. "It's winter."

We have a tendency to personify animals and feel empathy when we see them in a cold and snowy landscape, said Netland. Yet the reality is these animals are well adapted to these conditions, and know very well how to survive in them. He does not anticipate this winter will have any lasting impact on the deer population in the area.