Everywhere I go lately the number one topic on the minds of those who know me or recognize me as the outdoors writer at the local newspaper seems to the plight of the northeastern Minnesota deer population in the midst of a pretty tough winter.
They ask me what I think, and my answer is: They are in trouble.
The 2019-20 season started much too early with a lot of snow in November and if it doesn’t wrap up pretty quickly deer morality rates are going to rise above normal winter levels.
Some people I’ve talked to have already seen signs of this – spotting fuzzy, bloated, sickly looking live deer on the sides of the road or dead deer at or near their hunting grounds.
I haven’t seen much sign of this myself and what I have observed is much the same as what Tom Rusch, Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Manager in Tower told me he has witnessed in the woods: “Deer hunkered down tight in winter cover since December.”
That’s survival instinct kicking in.
While any animal that calls northeastern Minnesota home is accustomed to a tough life, when Mother Nature drops 30-inches of snow on them and winter drags on for many, many months, it can be a death sentence for many, particularly the young and the old.
Deer are no exception.
This week officials from the Tower Area DNR put out an updated Winter Severity Index dated March 1.
The WSI is, as we’ve covered in the past, the way the DNR measures winter. They’ve been using the system for five decades. The WSI accumulates one point for each day the temperature is below zero and one point for each day there is more than 15 inches of snow on the ground.
I first learned about the WSI back in 1995 and 1996, during my first couple years as the outdoors guy. Those winters were devastating and led to all kinds of panic by deer hunters — and eventually legislators — who came up with the silly idea of trying to feed the deer in hopes of saving the herd.
It cost a lot of money and didn’t work, and the end result was back-to-back bad winters and a bucks-only season.
Luckily, the area saw several mild winters in a row after that and the population bounced back — big time. In fact, within a few years there were so many deer out there that the DNR had to expand hunting options to thin the herd.
But that’s a different story.
Today we are talking about the winter of 2019-20.
The (slightly) good news is temps this year have been above normal for most of the season. Those two and three week stretches of dangerous windchills that are often the norm in late January in February didn’t make an appearance this year.
Sure, there were a few bitter cold days, but for the most part the temps have been relatively acceptable.
“Statistically, February has been the coldest month of an otherwise mild northeastern Minnesota winter, from a temperature perspective,” said Rusch. “With 16 days at or below zero to date (Feb. 28).
November had four days; December 13; and January 13.
On the other end of the equation, there’s been way more than 15 inches of snow on the ground for much of December through this past week.
According to DNR numbers, there have been 82 snow point days so far, and with potentially four to six weeks until spring, the winter of 2019-20 could conceivably get worse.
“Current snow depths are three to five inches lower than last month but still deep for white-tailed deer,” Rusch said. “Each day a deer has to endure trudging through chest deep snow is a significant drain on its physiological condition.”
And, Rusch added, a stretch of 40 to 50-degree temperatures last weekend followed by cold weather didn’t do the deer any favors. Instead it created a crust on the snow.
“This is a real game changer and tips the balance in favor of predators. Wolves, bobcats and coyotes can now stay on top while deer break through the crusted layer,” he said. “With an increase in sun angle, snow conditions now change day-to-day but deep snow favors the predators.”
An average winter measures 115 on the WSI scale and, according to Rusch, historically our extreme temperatures in the area combined with consistent snowfall make our winter severity one of the highest in the state for white-tailed deer.
As of Feb. 28 the WSI score in the Tower Deer Permit Area (DPA) was 129. The score was 109 in the Eveleth DPA and 132 in the Isabella DPA.
Rusch said the WSI totals have increased substantially since Feb. 1: Tower increased 51 points, Eveleth by 50 points and Isabella by 52 points.
With deer at the northern extent of their range, deep snow becomes a limiting factor. If it stays this way until April (similar to the long winters of 2013-14 and 1995-96), WSI totals will exceed 150, Rusch said.
This can lead to malnutrition and starvation, higher than normal wolf mortality, a decline in fawn production, and a potential decline in hunter success next fall.
Rusch said there hasn’t been any preliminary talk about what will happen during the 2020 hunting season. Official word will come in May.
“We want to see how winter plays out in the next six weeks. Obviously, after back-to-back tough winters we will see a more conservative season than last year. Additionally, the last decade was the highest snowfall on record,” he said, adding that the best-case scenario is a rerun of last year. “Winter fades in mid-March. Worst case is we get dumped on throughout March like 2013-14.”
Rusch said so far, he is only getting scattered reports of wolf kills – mostly fawns. He also said that officials involved in a collared deer research project around Elephant Lake - that had been going on through December, January and most of February - saw zero mortality until after last weekend’s warm snap, when wolves killed three deer.
Rusch is set to give a presentation from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 11, at the Mountain Iron Community Center, on the state of the moose in northeastern Minnesota.
The event, which is sponsored by the Sturgeon River Chapter of Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, will feature Rusch giving a power point presentation on the 2020 northeast aerial moose survey, the new population estimate and factors affecting our moose population followed by a question and answer period. The event is free and open to the public.