It may sound like a broken record, but North Dakota's weather in February and March will once again be critical to the health of the state's wildlife.
Randy Kreil, North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife chief, said wildlife populations have had to struggle with tough conditions through three consecutive winters. "Animals definitely could use a reprieve," he said. "They are not as resilient as they were in the beginning of winter. The longer winter drags on, the greater the impact to wildlife populations and next fall's hunting opportunities."
Record to near-record snowfall has blanketed much of North Dakota each winter since 2008-09. Because of winter mortality, the number of deer licenses in 2010 was significantly reduced by nearly 30,000, and the pronghorn population was too low to sustain a hunting season last fall.
This winter, the Game and Fish Department has received reports of pheasant losses, but the extent is unknown. Kreil said birds seem to be doing okay in some areas, but no doubt have suffered losses in other areas.
"What this winter will mean in terms of pheasant hunting opportunities next fall is hard to tell," he added. "For the most part, birds were able to adapt the past two winters under similar conditions. But then again, good nesting habitat in spring allowed them to rebound. However, with the continued loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres, their ability to rebound could be impaired."
Reports of dying or dead deer are not uncommon in tough winters, and this holds true this winter as well. Mostly fawns and older deer are affected by the cold and wind. In addition, heavy snow cover prevents deer from accessing their usual food sources, which can result in deer dying because of grain overload - a result of deer switching their natural diet to a diet comprised of mostly corn and/or other grains.
Because deer often gather near farms and ranches in winter, department personnel are working with approximately 200 livestock producers to protect stored feed supplies. This number is similar to last year at this time, but is still far below the winter of 1996-97 when Game and Fish staff worked with more than 1,000 different producers on deer depredation issues.
No wildlife species has suffered the harsh realities of winter more so than pronghorn, as the population has declined by more than 50 percent since 2008. Kreil said there is little doubt pronghorn are in a vulnerable state due to deep snow, and in some cases have limited movement because herds are prevented from moving to areas with less snow.
While this winter so far has been tough on wildlife, Kreil said the next several weeks are critical. "Animals have been stressed for a couple months now, and they don't have the energy they had in early winter," Kreil said. "A mild February and March is much needed, and if we get a break we will see the benefits next fall. If not, then hunters will need to adjust their expectations in 2011."