Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Midpoint report: Mellow winter for deer thus far

Pheasants faring well, too

By Tim Spielman

Associate Editor

Grand Rapids, Minn. It’s approaching a decade since biologists
classified a winter as “severe” for whitetails in Minnesota. The
current version of winter is shaping up to be much like those since
1996-97, when a harsh winter took the lives of numerous northern
deer.

Winter Severity Index levels this week nearly mirrored levels
from this time last year. And while there’s a lot of winter left,
state officials don’t think northern Minnesota deer are in
jeopardy.

“What’s really critical now is how long (mild conditions) last,”
said Mark Lenarz, DNR Wildlife biologist in Grand Rapids. “We could
have conditions like this until March, but then have a March
blizzard hit and extend the winter season by 45 days.”

According to the DNR’s winter severity scale, any winter that
scores 180 or above is considered severe. Winterkill can occur at
lower levels, of course, but major damage can take place at or
above 180. The winter index measures days with below-zero
temperatures, more than 18 inches of snow on the ground, or both
(two points).

Not since the winter of 1996-97 have indexes at any of the DNR’s
reporting locations had levels even close to 180. In fact, during
the past six winters, even surpassing 100 has been a rarity.

Last year, the high WSI when winter was complete was from the
Roseau River Wildlife Management Area, where the total was 75. The
low last year was 33 at Cambridge. This year, the high thus far is
in International Falls, with a WSI of 31, as of mid-January, before
the most recent snowfall. That compared to a reading of 30 at this
time last year, Lenarz said.

Grand Rapids and Cloquet had readings of 23 and 30, respectively
this year, both slightly above last year’s WSI pace.

Most of the points this year were brought about by cold
temperatures, Lenarz said, though recent snows in parts of the
state could change that. The snow-measuring station in Isabella
topped 18 inches this week, he said.

Harsh winters in 1995-96 and 1996-97 killed off nearly 45
percent of the northern deer herd. The herd during that first
winter was similar to this year’s herd, Lenarz said.

“(The herd now) is still below its carrying capacity,” he said.
But if we did have a severe winter akin to 1995-96 and 1996-97, we
would see major mortality in the population.”

That’s because, like 1995-96, the herd is made up of several
ages of deer. The more susceptible deer were the first to go during
the mid-90s.

“That winter (1995-96) cleaned out the young and the old,”
Lenarz said. “This year, there were lots of ages, from young to old
and it could’ve been the same way.”

However, WSI numbers from 1995-96 make this winter’s, thus far,
look rather tropical. For example, at this time in January of 1996,
the WSI in Bemidji was at 75; this year it’s at 13. And at Roseau,
the WSI that winter was at 106; this winter it’s at 30.

Southern deer

Besides for research purposes, little deer monitoring is done
during the winter, officials say. Winterkill seldom occurs, and
winter’s main effect on deer is the birthing rate, come spring,
officials say.

Ken Varland, DNR’s southern regional wildlife manager, said it’s
usually an indicator of a severe winter in the south if the office
receives calls about deer depredation. That’s when area deer begin
to raid hay and corn stashes of farmers.

“Mobility is not much of a problem, generally,” he said. “And
here, it’s been a non-winter so far.”

Varland said starvation is rare in the southern tier of the
state.

Pheasants looking fine

Randy Markl, DNR area wildlife manager in Windom, says so far,
so good for pheasants in the southwestern belt of Minnesota.

“I would say we’re in really good shape,” Markl said this week.
“There was concern when the winter started around Thanksgiving up
until about Christmas, but then we got a melt” that removed a crust
of ice from fields where pheasants were attempting to feed.

In fact, the melt nearly cleared out the all the snow. And until
this week, when about 6 inches fell, Markl said things were pretty
brown.

“We’ve had a number of days above 40 (degrees),” he said.

Right now, he said, pheasants are “pretty darn healthy, pretty
darn fat,” and likely will be able to tolerate some of the severity
the latter part of winter can dish out.

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