North Dakota wildlife, even fish, face harsh winter

MINOT, N.D. — North Dakota’s native wildlife species have the ability to cope with harsh winters, but there are limits. While native birds such as sharp-tailed grouse have evolved with certain physical attributes to help protect them from winter, the landscape has changed beneath them. As habitat continues to disappear, protection from winter’s elements is limited.

Toss in ice covered ground, blizzards and deep snow whipped by high winds and it makes one wonder how anything living outdoors can survive. This winter is off to a miserable start for wildlife. No matter how resilient our resident wildlife can be, they are already showing signs of being under severe stress. Most wildlife is in a fight for its lives.

The state’s most popular non-native upland game bird, ring-necked pheasants, has a limited ability to combat harsh winters. They are among the species of particular concern to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Ice covered ground and deep snow is a deadly combination for the colorful birds.

“The amount of snow we’ve had, with the wind, has really filled in their winter habitat,” said Jeb Williams, NDG&F Wildlife Division chief. “That’s the case now. It really limits the good wintering places for pheasants to be.”

Hungarian partridge are another non-native upland game bird that resides in North Dakota. However, their numbers are limited and not nearly as visible or sought after as ring-necked pheasants. Partridge also tend to do better in winter conditions than do pheasants but are still susceptible to winter die-offs.

“It gets back to winter cover,” explained Williams. “Most of the time, critters can get to a food source, even if it’s not the best. We’ve already heard some first-hand, some anecdotal stories of dead pheasants and dead deer. I can tell you December hasn’t been what we wanted for wildlife. Conditions are just tough, very tough and very early in the winter, which is a concern. I wish I could sugar coat it and say something good, but it really hasn’t been.”

Williams said deer are already in survival mode which is much earlier than in most winters. Deer are already showing signs of stress, a cause of concern for wildlife biologists at a time when the state’s deer herd was beginning to rebound from low populations of a few years ago.

“We have reports of deer using bladed roads just to try and keep away from depths of snow,” said Williams.

Walking through deep snow is difficult and requires deer to burn extra energy that is difficult, if not impossible, to replace during our current winter conditions. Deer, like pheasants, rely on forage found on the ground to help them survive. Digging through deep snow only to discover the ground covered with ice makes finding food extremely difficult. Deer will eat twigs and branches in an effort to survive, but it is a losing battle. Pheasants will get to the point where they simply sit in one place to save energy, or because they are too weak to search for food, and die of exposure. Sharptailed grouse will find food wherever available. They can often be seen sitting in berry bushes well above the snow, feeding on the frozen berries despite the weather conditions. Not all will survive.

Harsh winters not only affect wildlife. Deep snow can be very problematic for fish too. Too much snow on a lake restricts sunlight from penetrating through the ice. Without sunlight, even limited sunlight during the winter, underwater plants die. Living plants produce oxygen needed by fish but when underwater plants die, they consume oxygen. Fish kills can result, the Minot Daily News reported.

“The bad is winterkill, obviously, especially since many of our lakes were running a few feet low heading into freeze-up,” said Greg Power, NDG&F Fisheries Division chief. “They could be highly suspect. If there is some hope out there, it is that we had a late fall. That’s a big deal.”

November was an open water month across the state, shortening the amount of time a frozen lake could be covered in snow. That is good news for that state’s fisheries, but conditions have worsened in a hurry. Some fisheries biologists have already begun the task of sampling lakes for levels of dissolved oxygen, something that normally isn’t done until mid-January and into February. This winter though, is anything but normal.

“There’s a handful of lakes that we are monitoring every other week or so,” said Power. “We are checking more now. The snow is definitely a concern. It isn’t going away anytime soon.”

In general terms, the deeper the lake the less likely it is to experience a winter die-off of fish. Shallow lakes, say 12 feet or less, and those lakes that have been prone to winter fish kills in previous years, are considered the most vulnerable to fish kills this winter. It is a waiting game that has sportsmen and biologists hoping for the best possible outcome against difficult odds.

While the heavy snow on the ice is not the best situation for fish, it also causes problems for fishermen. Access to lakes for those wishing to fish through the ice is a problem at many locations. At Lake Darling, an abundance of snow has choked all vehicle access points, a situation that may not change this winter. Snow drifts are tall and wide. Some ice fishermen have resorted to walking out where possible.

Lake Audubon is another popular ice fishing destination for North Dakota fishermen. Like Lake Darling, access there is difficult to impossible.

“I don’t think people can even get on the ice. On the refuge side, it is blown in pretty good,” said Todd Frerichs, Audubon National Wildlife Refuge. “Somebody did open up the Totten Trail boat ramp and there’s been people on the ice over there.”

Audubon NWR is located on the south side of Lake Audubon. Frerichs said only a handful of ice houses were visible from his office adjacent to the lake and that there was no evidence of anyone using them. The Totten Trail is on the north side. According to Frerichs, it appeared the heaviest snow was located on the south side of Lake Audubon. Neither Audubon NWR or Game and Fish maintain access points during the winter.

According to Power, there are three issues facing ice fishermen — getting to a lake over snowy county roads, getting on the lake at an access point and then traveling on a lake to a favorite fishing area.

“Right now, all three are not so good,” said Power. “I’m afraid access is becoming very problematic. In an average fishing year, 25 percent of our fishing is through the ice. In a bad winter, it is less than 5 percent.”

This winter could easily fall into the 5 percent category. An exception to lake access may be in the southeastern portion of the state where a limited amount of snow has fallen so far this winter. However, rain that fell in place of snow in many areas of the southeast has resulted in a hard coating covering the ground, creating a very difficult obstacle for wildlife trying to survive a North Dakota winter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *