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Deer are resilient, survive harsh winters

By Anna Jauhola
Snow depths over 15 inches. Many days with below zero temperatures. Heavy winds causing blowing snow and crust. Predators.
These are all factors that have affected the deer population in Kittson County throughout this particularly harsh winter. However, overall the deer appear to be adapting well to the situation.
“The last two winters have been pretty mild,” said Jason Wollin, Karlstad area wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota DNR. “You get your mild winters, average winters and then severe winters. I’d say we’re on the brink of a severe winter because of the amount of snow, the amount of snow events, the blizzards we’ve had and the cold temperatures. Also, the fact it’s March 10 and we still have a lot of snow out there.”
While white-tailed deer are built to withstand harsh winters by adapting to their surroundings and food sources, they are likely starting to feel the effects. Usually deer forage and browse for food, often eating twigs from trees and pawing through snow for grasses. Wollin said the drought last year probably limited some of the forage they’d usually eat.
Despite that, Wollin hasn’t heard anything regarding deer starving in the county, unlike some DNR officials further east. On the North Shore of Minnesota, the DNR has recorded much of that area to have a Winter Severity Index (WSI) number of more than 120. Kittson County, for comparison, varies from 76 to 119. The DNR calculates this number by giving points for each day a region is below zero and has at least 15 inches of snow on the ground.
“So that’s where we draw a lot of conclusions on how severe a winter is,” Wollin said. “We can take that WSI number and give a good estimate of the mortality rate. But there’s always a lot of factors going into the health of wildlife and deer in general.”
Wollin has not received any reports at his office about starving or possibly starving deer in the county. However, if there are starving deer or some that look to be in poor shape, he said they are likely fawns or young deer that cannot make it through the deep snow or get enough nutrition.
“They’re probably the ones that are going to suffer a little bit. You’re going to get that naturally, anyway,” he said. “There’s going to be fawn mortality every year that don’t make it through the winter. That’s just how wild populations go.”
He said most healthy does will give birth to twins in the spring, but maybe only one makes it through the winter.
In a winter like this, deer find their way to silage, stored grain, hay bales and other feed, as well as through towns where they browse on low-lying branches, bushes and other forage. Wollin said Kittson County is the only county in the region without a feeding ban right now, so it’s not illegal to feed deer, but it’s not encouraged either. The surrounding counties – Roseau, Marshall, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake, Lake of the Woods and Beltrami all have feeding bans because there were positive CWD cases in Beltrami and Polk.
“There should be enough natural forage out there for them,” Wollin said. “But this year it is tough. When you get this late in winter, this is the tipping point. They’ve dealt with winter for this long and normally by now, we’re in the breakup stage. With the wind events, there’s a crust on the snow so they can’t really paw through it as easily.”
Wollin cautions anyone feeding deer that congregating any wild animal like that can cause worry for spreading disease. He reiterated that deer are adaptable and, even in harsh winters, will find their way to food sources.
On occasion, Wollin will receive calls that a deer dropped dead in person’s yard within a town’s limits. These deer likely have internal injuries but outwardly look healthy, so people who call believe it had to be diseased. Wollin said, most of the time, it had been hit by a vehicle but was able to walk away and succumbed to its injuries after it wandered for a while.

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