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

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Worried about whitetails? Here are ways to help them weather winter

A buck feeds in the snow during winter. (Photo by Daniel Teetor / Adobe Stock)

After the bout of snow that recently pummeled central and southern Minnesota, I’m having flashbacks to the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14. The poorest deer hunting of my entire hunting career followed these seasons, and I cringe thinking about returning to those days if this winter drags on.

According to my degree in meteorology from Google University, here in central Minnesota, we’ve already recorded 41.5 inches of snowfall, with the season average at roughly 42.5 inches of snow. My anecdotal evidence suggests the snow in my locale is knee-deep across most of the woodlands, and open areas that saw drifting are even deeper.

Using a chainsaw to make browse available to deer (above) is one way to help during a harsh winter. One favorite of whitetails is the sumac drupe (r). (Photos courtesy of Ryan Rothstein/Tim Spielman)

Add it all up and it doesn’t bode terribly well for whitetails. I will never discount a whitetail’s ability to survive harsh conditions – any critter that can survive from boreal Canada to northern South America deserves a lot of credit for its adaptability. But Mother Nature doesn’t particularly care about anyone’s ability to outlast her worst.

It’s not necessarily the deep snow alone that concerns me. More so, it’s how early in the season the snow is piling up. Moving in deep snow is a calorie burner, and this can deplete fat reserves rapidly. If this is coupled with a long winter, it can cause significant mortality in a deer herd.

Another thing snow is good for?

RELATED COMMENTARY: Winter feeding of wildlife often has unintended, negative results

Covering up available food and browse. Most food plots and ag fields are completely buried at this point. Acorns? If the squirrels didn’t cache them, they’re now in a snowy tomb. Even browse is starting to get covered up, particularly the youngest, most tender forms of browse.

If you’re wondering how to help the local deer herd, there are several actions you can take right now and into the future to stave off winter’s killing effects. Here’s what to keep in mind when thinking of winter whitetail nutrition.

Say no to corn

Whether you’re in ag country or the northwoods, I strongly advise against feeding corn to deer. For one, feeding deer is banned across about half of Minnesota. For another, corn is simply not a food that deer are adapted to digesting right now.

As fall wears on and winter sets in, the microflora in the whitetail gut slowly changes to accommodate a diet of poorer-quality forage. By the time winter arrives, deer are primarily relying on browse, making their gut microflora adapted to digesting a dense, lignified food source. For deer in the northwoods or those in ag country that haven’t had corn in a while, feeding corn right now would be a death sentence.

Most everyone has heard of deer dying with a full stomach, and this is usually the cause. Rapid changes to a deer’s diet, particularly this time of year, can end up killing it simply because its gut is incapable of digesting the material. Luckily, there are cheaper options than corn.

Break out the chainsaw

Perhaps the least appreciated of Aldo Leopold’s tools of habitat management, the chainsaw is a deer hunter’s most valuable management tool. In fact, dropping deciduous trees right now is the best thing any landowner can do to help deer, nutritionally.

If you aren’t comfortable running a chainsaw, it’s always best to hire a professional, because tree felling can certainly be dangerous.

Species to cut include aspen, cottonwood, hard and soft maple, and ash. I’ve seen deer flock to cut sites within a day of the chainsaw leaving, and they go nuts over the newly available browse.

It might seem head-scratching at first to think that tree buds would be quality deer food, but there is a surprising amount of energy contained in each.

It’s also exactly what deer need right now.

One of my favorite facts of whitetail physiology is their ability to physically change the microflora in their gut to derive maximum energy and nutrition out of suboptimal food sources, such as woody browse, during winter. Their metabolic rate decreases significantly, along with their daily movement, to require less energy for basic survival.

These factors get a deer herd through Minnesota’s worst, and it’s also why providing them with browse is the best course of action.

Though providing winter browse is huge, the largest benefits from cutting trees won’t come until months later. By opening the canopy to put browse on the ground, we’ve also created the opportunity for a lot of sunlight to hit the ground, which creates a flush of deer browse and cover.

Deciduous trees store enormous energy reserves in their root systems, and when the main trunk is cut during winter, all that stored energy explodes into new, tender shoots in the spring. Studies from Mississippi State University have shown these stump sprouts to rival any food plot in terms of nutritional quality for deer.

Cutting trees now is a short- and long-term investment.

These efforts will continue to produce for at least a few years depending on the amount of canopy reduction.

Drop the sumac

A plant that can be a thorn in the side of a habitat manager, particularly in the prairie region, the ubiquitous sumac can be a real lifesaver for deer during a winter such as this.

Despite being a woody plant, sumac is one of the softest of the lignified shrubs. It also has large leaf buds and seed clusters called drupes that are the size of small corn cobs. I’ve watched deer actually grab hold of these drupes and snap them off like they would a corn cob, which provides great comic relief while in a deer stand.

Sumac is a fast-growing, sucker-rooting shrub that can quickly get out of browse height of deer. A simple solution is to take either a chainsaw or a lopper and get into a large sumac colony, dropping most plants that are above a deer’s height.

Dropping large pockets of sumac can make a tremendous difference during a long winter. Its abundance and digestibility for deer make it an invaluable asset when the weather gets harsh.

Think ahead

If you’re feeling helpless, now is the perfect time to assess actions you can take moving forward to build resiliency into your habitat base to guard against the worst effects of harsh winters. Two simple rules are all you need to guide your habitat management if you’re struggling with where to start.

The first rule: Deer are creatures of the edge.

By that I mean that they live and die by early successional cover, and if your property is lacking that, it’s an easy place to start.

Maybe you own a mature hardwood stand that you can see clear through for 100 acres. If that’s your scenario, it’s probably time to consider a patch-cut timber harvest. Maybe you own a large chunk of monoculture tall-grass prairie that got folded over with the ridiculous amounts of snow we’ve had. A good option to consider is planting small pockets of shrubs throughout the prairie to improve winter cover and provide a browse source.

The second rule: Deer can eat only that which they can reach.

As much as I love walking through a mature hardwood stand in the fall, this is relatively poor deer habitat when compared with a young aspen stand or an oak savanna. Are mature hardwoods better deer habitat right now than a plowed field? Undoubtedly, but it could be better. For habitat to be most useful to deer, it must be at their level. Now is the time to plan out how to move that needle.

Tying it together

I try to take both a long and short view when thinking about winter deer nutrition and survival. The long view is picturing what a particular habitat patch will look like five years from now as succession marches on. Remember the conditions this winter, and then apply any lessons you learn from habitat manipulation as it related to deer survival. Conduct your management activities with the next five to 10 years in mind.

The short view is recognizing that every little step taken is one more positive to push the collective needle. Most any wildlife biologist will tell you that it’s not the individual deer that matters to the health of the species, but the overall population.

In other words, if an individual deer dies, the impact to the overall population is inconsequential. While this is certainly correct ecologically and on a landscape scale, if the winter kills a couple of promising bucks you were hoping to hunt this coming fall, it’s little consolation in the short-term that the overall population isn’t impacted.

This is where I view each small step taken by a land manager as a net positive toward building the overall health and productivity of the local deer herd.

Taken by itself in a vacuum, dropping a few sumac tops is meaningless. However, couple those sumac tops with dropping some trees each winter and a long-term plan for high-quality food plots and timber stand improvement, and we can slowly build better resilience into both the deer herd and the habitat base. Though these activities may be small steps, the sum of the parts is much greater than the individual actions.

If you’re worrying about your deer herd this winter, strap on the snowshoes and get some browse on the ground for your local herd. Then, take a hard look at which management steps you can take moving through this year and beyond to build a habitat base for your herd to get them through winter.

The deer will thank you, and you’ll be thanking yourself when you have a strong herd to hunt come November.

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