This winter’s relative lack of extended cold and marginal snow should benefit recovering deer populations both in North Dakota and Minnesota, managers say.
Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said even calling this winter “average” might be a stretch.
“Obviously, snow conditions in some parts of the state, they don’t even exist,” Williams said. “Other parts had a period with a decent amount of snow, but we didn’t have a double-whammy of cold. Any time you can avoid having both of those — deer in snow up to their bellies and 30-below temperatures on top of it — critters can do pretty well.”
The downside — and it’s not much of a downside, Williams said — is the lack of snow means the department hasn’t been able to conduct winter aerial surveys to count deer. Crews flew a couple of moose surveys, Williams said, but snow is essential for counting deer from the air.
“There were a couple of times when the guys thought we could go,” Williams said. “They did a couple of test flights, and it wasn’t quite enough. Then we got the warm-up, and now we’re a ways away again.”
John Williams, northwest regional wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji, said crews flying the recent winter elk surveys in northwest Minnesota reported seeing good numbers of deer.
That should bode well for production, come spring.
“We’re now set, I think, for a situation where people are going to see much more deer this coming fall unless Mother Nature really throws us a curve, and she’s good at putting some spin on March,” he said. “March just scares me, but everything right now just feels great.”
Randy Prachar, manager of the DNR’s Roseau River Wildlife Management Area, said there’s about a foot of snow in the woods, but deer aren’t having any problem getting around.
“I tell you what — when we get winters like we’ve had here this winter and last winter, you’re going to start seeing the influence of that,” Prachar said.
Two consecutive modest winters mean whitetail does should be in great shape come spring, he said.
“They’re going to be really productive,” he said. “They’re not going to give birth to fawns that can’t make it past the first two weeks because they’re so small when they’re born. I would guess this coming year we’ll start to see a noticeable increase (of deer) on the landscape.
“I’m kind of looking forward to seeing what happens because the deer seem to be in really good shape.”
The mostly benign winter should benefit pheasant survival in Minnesota and North Dakota, but the lack of snow in some areas—and a freeze-thaw cycle that has put a crust on snow in others—can be a detriment to snow-roosting birds such as ruffed grouse and sharptails.
Ted Dick, ruffed grouse specialist for the DNR in Grand Rapids, Minn., said he talks to DNR managers across grouse range and most would prefer to have more snow. At the same time, the lack of extended cold temperatures has helped mitigate the marginal snow cover, Dick said.
“Nights when it barely gets to 10 or 15 degrees are very easy for them to tolerate,” he said.
Prachar, the Roseau River WMA manager, said he’s not seeing many ruffed grouse, but the occasional bird is “popping out of the snow here and there.”
“So they are snow roosting,” Prachar said. “I think this is a pretty good winter for them.”
Prachar said he’s been especially encouraged by the number of sharptails he’s seen.
“Numbers are fairly impressive,” Prachar said. “I’m pretty optimistic about the sharptails.”
This winter’s late freeze-up and general lack of snow also benefits fish, especially in smaller, shallower lakes susceptible to winterkill during years when too much ice and snow blocks the sun and hampers photosynthesis, the process by which oxygen is produced underwater.
Randy Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake, said fisheries crews have begun sampling lakes across the district for dissolved oxygen. The story to date: So far, so good — same as last winter.
“Last winter, I don’t know that we had a verified winterkill, which is kind of a first,” Hiltner said.
On the downside, if snow remains scarce, lack of runoff this spring will further reduce water levels that already were low on many of the district’s smaller lakes, Hiltner said.The northeast district has about 55 lakes.
On Lake of the Woods, the DNR is conducting its first winter creel survey since 2012-13. Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn., said no preliminary numbers are available, but fishing was good after the late freeze-up, and ice conditions have improved to the point where access is less of a challenge.
As part of the survey, a creel clerk travels the lake interviewing anglers to gain information on everything from demographics to catch rates and harvest.
Fishing was good from the outset, Talmage said, but appears to have settled into a more typical midwinter pattern.
“More often than not, everybody is getting enough fish for the frying pan, and now and then, some random fish house is having a stellar day and (catching their limit) in two to three hours,” he said.
Talmage said funding is back on track for a creel survey every winter, and the DNR will conduct a summer creel two out of every four years beginning this summer. Spring and fall creel surveys on the Rainy River also are in the works for this year, he said.
“The variability we see in summer and pressure in summer is much more consistent than what we see in winter,” Talmage said. “Winter is what has expanded most in the past 15-20 years.”