February 2, 2011

Wildlife struggle through third hard winter in a row

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

It may sound like a broken record, but North Dakota’s weather in February and March will once again be critical to the health of the state’s wildlife populations, with McKenzie County being no exception.
“Wildlife populations have had to struggle with tough conditions through three consecutive winters,” says Brent Schwan, North Dakota Game and Fish Department district game warden. “Area wildlife could definitely use a break from Mother Nature.”
According to Schwan, area wildlife went into the winter with great conditions and healthy populations, but as winter drags on things are getting harder and harder for them.
“The longer winter drags on, the greater the impact to wildlife populations and next fall’s hunting opportunities,” comments Schwan.
Record to near-record snowfall has blanketed much of North Dakota each winter since 2008-09. Because of winter mortality, the number of deer licenses in 2010 was significantly reduced by nearly 30,000, and the pronghorn population was too low to sustain a hunting season last fall.
So far this winter, Schwan has only received a few calls about wildlife losses. But if February and March bring more snow and cold temperatures, he expects that number will increase.
“February and March are crucial months for the animals,” adds Schwan. “With all of the snow and cold, you would expect the animals to really be struggling, but because they had a great spring and fall, they went into winter very healthy, and so far, they are faring pretty well. However, their fat supplies are getting depleted and all of the snow is making it really hard for them to get around, and the hard crust on top makes it hard for them to get underneath the snow for food. So unless it gets nicer, they probably won’t be faring well for much longer.”
Reports of dying or dead deer are not uncommon in tough winters, and this holds true this winter as well. Mostly fawns and older deer are affected by the cold and wind. In addition, heavy snow cover prevents deer from accessing their usual food sources, which can result in deer dying because of grain overload,  a result of deer switching their natural diet to a diet comprised of mostly corn or other grains.
Deer often gather near farms and ranches in the winter, and although Schwan has had a handful of depredation calls, he doesn’t feel that the wildlife has been overly hard on area farmers and ranchers.
“I would guess that every farmer or rancher in the county has some deer feeding on their hay,” adds Schwan. “The depredation calls only come in on the extreme cases where the farmer or rancher’s food supply is being overrun by wildlife.”
“Last week I saw six antelope huddled together in a ball and I’ve received some calls of deer that are just lying on the road,” states Schwan. “You can’t help but feel bad for them and I just can’t imagine being an animal in times like this. But they are resilient and in most winters, the majority of animals struggle through.”
According to Schwan, the next two months will be critical to the survival of area wildlife.
“If February and March are mild, then I don’t think we will see much higher than normal winter kills,” says Schwan. “But, if we continue to see more snow and stretches of really cold weather, then I think this winter will prove to be very hard on the area’s wildlife.”