Winter Will Determine Health of Wildlife in North Dakota

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North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologists indicate the final 4-6 weeks of winter will be critical to the health of the state's wildlife.

"Depending on how the rest of the winter plays out, the cumulative impact could be significant," said Randy Kreil, wildlife chief.

Reports of pheasant losses continue, especially after the statewide rain experienced in early February. "Reports across the state vary from birds doing okay to areas with considerable losses," said Stan Kohn, upland game bird supervisor. "In some instances, landowners are reporting 75 percent fewer birds than they did in the beginning of winter."

The Game and Fish Department receives phone calls on a regular basis from hunters inquiring about what this winter will mean in terms of pheasant hunting opportunities next fall. "We've even had people ask if we are going to lower the bag limit," Kreil said. "At this point it is far too early to make any such predictions. We will closely monitor the results of the spring pheasant crowing count surveys, and this will give us our first real definitive information on just how difficult the winter was and what sort of losses we incurred."

The department continues to receive reports of dying or dead deer in some areas of the state. Kreil said mostly fawns and older deer are affected by the cold and wind, which is not uncommon. In addition, heavy snow cover that prevents deer from accessing their usual food sources has resulted in at least five separate incidents of grain overload, with seven to 50 deer dying in each incident.

Dr. Dan Grove, wildlife veterinarian, said grain overload is a result of deer overeating on corn and/or other grains. "Their diet typically consists of grasses and browse; they are not adapted to indulge only on corn, wheat and oats," Grove said. "But with the constraints they have this winter, this is what food is readily available to them."

Deer often gather or "yard up" in winters near farms and ranches, but this year has been more extreme. Department personnel are working with approximately 250 livestock producers to alleviate deer damage to stored feed supplies. While this is the highest number in more than a decade, it is still below the winter of 1996-97 when Game and Fish staff worked with more than 1,000 different producers on deer depredation issues.

While deer and pheasants garner the most attention, species such as bighorn sheep and pronghorn also feel the sting of the long, hard winter.

"We recently documented the loss of six mature radio-collared bighorn sheep in the northern badlands due to exposure and severe winter weather," said Brett Wiedmann, big game biologist. "These are big, hearty animals that should survive North Dakota winters, but apparently the severe conditions got the better of them."

While there hasn't been any winter-related mortality of pronghorn documented yet, Bruce Stillings, big game biologist, said there is little doubt they are in a vulnerable state due to deep snow, and in some cases have limited movement because herds are prevented from moving south of Interstate 94. "One of our biologists saw a herd of 200 pronghorn belly-deep in snow, and other large groups have been observed bunched together north of Belfield and east of Dickinson," he added. "This is not a good situation. It is nearly impossible for them to cross the interstate and migrate to areas with less snow."

With animals not as resilient as they were in the beginning of winter, late season storms with significant snowfall, or those that cause an ice layer to form, make foraging very difficult. "If this happens in the next few weeks, it could add to this winter's impact on North Dakota's wildlife populations," Kreil said.