Deer need a break
Ray Brook, N.Y. — A relentless winter marked as much by bitter cold as heavy snow may take its toll on whitetails if the weather doesn’t warm up in March.
DEC wildlife biologists, especially in the Adirondacks of northern New York, are monitoring deer as they endure what has been a lengthy winter, notably in February, when temperatures struggled to climb above zero on many days.
“There’s no reports yet suggesting deer are really struggling, but if this carries into March there’s likely going to be problems and we’re going to lose some deer, especially last year’s fawns,” DEC Region 6 wildlife biologist Steve Heerkens said last week.
Heerkens’ Region 5 counterpart, Ed Reed, whose region includes the Adirondacks High Peaks, agrees.
“If we don’t get a thaw pretty soon we’ll probably lose some deer,” Reed said. “The whole region looks the same, from the Canadian border down to Saratoga County – three feet of snow with no crust.”
While the snow depth could be an issue, a brutally and consistently cold February may have been the biggest setback for whitetails.
“January was almost a non-event here in the Mohawk Valley, but in February we had 27 days of below zero weather,” Heerkens said. “That exceeded a record for days below zero in February.”
And that combination of snow depth and cold weather begins to take its toll on deer, biologists say. In fact, a Winter Severity Index (WSI) is used to monitor snow and cold between Dec. 1 and April 30, with a points system to rank the severity of the winter.
Any day in which the temperature drops to zero or below is scored as one point. And days in which there are 18 or more inches of snow on the ground also score a point. A seasonal score of 50 or less is described as a moderate winter; 51-80 as moderate; 81-100 as severe and over 100 as very severe.
Severe and very severe winters typically mean some whitetail mortality will occur.
“I haven’t run the numbers at this point,” Reed said, “but the duration of the cold and snow is a concern for deer, and probably turkeys, too. We’re not finding any dead deer yet and they’re moving around within the yards, but they can only do that for so long before they run out of food and fat reserves.”
March is usually a critical month for whitetails, since it’s a time when the duration of a tough winter can begin to take its toll.
Heerkens says a couple of factors could, however, be working in favor of the deer.
“Acorn production was very good last year and the deer headed into the winter in great condition in most areas,” he said. “And there was not a lot of snow until February. Some deep snow, in fact, allows for energy conservation as deer hunker down. I’ve seen deer with their heads just above the snow line, bedded down.”
Neil Dougherty of North Country Whitetails, a wildlife consultant who manages properties across New York, said last month he wasn’t “overly alarmed” but added that March would be critical to the fate of some deer.
“The critical times are ahead of us,around mid-March when the winter rest period ends and their winter reserves are used up,” he said. “ When winter hangs on well into spring, or we get serious (snow) crusting conditions, that’s when I will begin to worry.”
Dougherty said most whitetails head into winter with about a 90-day supply of fat reserves and said in many areas of the state they “entered the winter in great shape thanks to a bumper crop of acorns last fall.”
He said it’s been a tough winter, notably from a temperature standpoint, “but deer in colder places than New York have been dealing with extreme cold for thousands of years and they are still thriving.”
That cold has been beneficial in one way, he added; it has kept the snow from crusting and allowed whitetails to establish a network of trails to allow for movement to a from available food sources.
“I worry more about crusted snow than I do about loose powder,” Dougherty said.