Weathering the storm: Winter to go down as tough one, next few weeks will determine impact on wildlife
Luke Fehr was scouting for wildlife one day in early February when he came across a Hungarian partridge sitting along the side of a gravel road.
It’s not an uncommon sight in winter. Birds of the prairie, Hungarian partridges often hunker along roadsides to pick at gravel or exposed food sources such as seeds or waste grains. To stay warm in the open country, they’ll huddle in roosting rings called rosettes and rely on each other for heat.
Something about this lone partridge seemed different, though, said Fehr, a construction worker from Altona, Manitoba, about an hour and a half north of Grand Forks. When he drove past the partridge and it didn’t move, Fehr said he decided to stop for a closer look.
That’s when he saw the partridge was dead, frozen in place in an eerily lifelike pose.
“It looked alive to me until the moment I picked it up,” said Fehr, who shared a photo of the partridge on Facebook. “It’s sad to see, but the harsh reality is it’s just part of the cycle of life during a winter of brutal extremes such as this one. Most of the groups of partridges I had seen this fall are either now missing completely or cut down in size by as much as 60 to 75 percent.”
As Fehr’s encounter illustrates, the winter of 2013-14 will be remembered as a season that started early and packed a one-two punch of cold and wind. But to this point, at least, the winter hasn’t had widely disastrous consequences for wildlife in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota.
That could change for species such as deer and pheasants, though, managers say — especially if brutal conditions linger.
“If winter persists, we have problems,” said Randy Kreil, wildlife section chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “If it plays out to be a normal winter, we might be OK.”
Heavy snow hit northern Minnesota in early December, and the Department of Natural Resources last week agreed to release $170,000 from an emergency fund to feed deer in the northeast part of the state. North Dakota, by comparison, remains relatively snow-free despite the spate of wind and cold everywhere but the northeast part of the state.
It’s almost difficult to imagine, but Kreil said the department has barely flown any of its winter big game surveys because there’s not enough snow across much of the state to spot the animals from the air.
“Frankly, that’s a good tradeoff,” he said. “Looking out my window, I see probably 3 percent snow.”
Traveling east on Interstate 94, Kreil said, there’s even less snow until the Red River Valley. Statewide, Kreil said he knows of only 17 deer depredation complaints.
“While winter started early, we haven’t had an incredible amount of snow,” Kreil said. “What we’re hearing is deer are doing fairly well, finding food, finding cover, and if winter doesn’t drag on into April and things moderate, we might be in OK shape in terms of winter impacts.”
Severity index rises
The lack of snow is a marked contrast to northwest Minnesota or areas farther east, where conditions are considerably worse.
“We’ve got probably 19 to 20 inches of snow on the level in the woods, and that’s a little (more) than average for this time of year,” said Randy Prachar, manager of Roseau River Wildlife Management Area near the Canadian border. “I don’t know how many consecutive days below zero we had” before this past week’s reprieve.
The Winter Severity Index, a measure of deep snow and subzero temperatures, stood at 104 Wednesday morning at Roseau River, Prachar said. Farther east, Charlie Tucker, assistant manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn., said the WSI on Wednesday at the WMA’s Norris Camp headquarters was 128.
An index of 100 or higher is considered the benchmark for a severe winter. Tucker said the forest at Norris Camp has 29 inches of snow on the level.
“We got a lot of snow early, and it’s also been cold, and because we count WSI points every time there’s snow deeper than 15 inches, we’ve been adding those points pretty consistently throughout the winter,” Tucker said. “It’s just an index, and it’s not necessarily indicative of the true hardship wildlife are experiencing.”
Prachar said he’s seen some deer mortality, including three or four wolf kills, on the west end of Roseau River WMA, but that’s not unusual, given the conditions.
“We’re not out there walking the trails looking for kills, so it’s just by chance when we’re going through an area,” he said.
The wildcard, though, is what the rest of the winter brings.
“If we start warming up in March, and the deer are able to get out into fields and forage for what forage there is, it’s going to make a huge difference,” Prachar said.
Upland birds OK
While tough on deer and pheasants, deep snow benefits species such as ruffed grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, which burrow into the snow to stay warm and avoid predators. In North Dakota, the lack of snow across pheasant range has been a positive so far, managers say.
Stan Kohn, upland game bird management supervisor for the Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said he hasn’t gotten any reports of pheasant mortality.
“To my thinking, it isn’t really a surprise,” Kohn said. “Those birds in most areas of the state are not having snow problems, and as long as they can get the food, the cold weather doesn’t bother them too much.”
Even Hungarian partridges will avoid the fate of birds such as the frozen Manitoba specimen if they can remain in large enough groups to circle together and stay warm.
“As long as there’s four or five in the group, they’ll sit right on top of the snow,” Kohn said. “We hardly ever see mortality on numbers like that, but when they get down to one or two birds and they have to subsist through the cold, then it gets pretty tough because they don’t have the size or body fat.”
Anecdotally, Prachar at Roseau River said the severe winter weather seems to be affecting winter songbird species such as pine siskins and redpolls.
“We see birds regularly and with all this cold, we’ve just had a major dropoff,” Prachar said. “I just have to wonder if those day-after-day subzero temperatures and wind chills finally caught up to some of them.”
Even fish aren’t out of the woods, so to speak, during severe winters. Deep snow and thick ice can combine to reduce sunlight penetration and halt the production of oxygen, especially on smaller, more shallow lakes.
When that happens, winterkill occurs. Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Bemidji, said he’s not aware of any winterkills yet, and a lake near Alexandria, Minn., is the only one in the agency’s northwest region to be opened to unlimited fishing because of the high winterkill threat.
Randy Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, said crews are just finishing winter oxygen checks on district lakes, and most have adequate to good dissolved oxygen levels. Several waters, such as Niagara Dam, have perennially low winter oxygen levels, he said.
“If we stay away from heavy snow the rest of the winter and have a ‘normal’ ice-out frame, most lakes should not see much winterkill,” Hiltner said.
But, as Drewes said, there’s a ways to go before winter ends.
“We’ll know over the next month,” he said.
For all species, that’s the common refrain this winter.