This year’s mild winter is largely beneficial for fish and wildlife – Grand Forks Herald

This year’s mild winter is largely beneficial for fish and wildlife – Grand Forks Herald

The 2023-2024 winter of unusually mild temperatures and lack of snow has been a bust for many types of outdoor recreation, but mostly beneficial for fish and wildlife after back-to-back severe winters in the past two years, North Dakota and North Dakota natural resource managers said. He says northwest Minnesota.

“There are winners and there are some losers, but for the most part with resident wildlife, it’s on the winning side of the equation,” said Blaine Klimke, wildlife manager for the Northwest Minnesota Department of Natural Resources District in Bemidji. “The past two winters have been tough on deer, of course, and now the deer, all over Minnesota, are in good shape and able to access food. And in some parts of the state, I have no doubt at all that the deer are actually getting fat.”

Blaine Klimek.jpg

Blaine Klimek, wildlife manager for the Northwest Minnesota Department of Natural Resources District in Bemidji.

Contributed by Blaine Klimek

“They are able to get all kinds of food.”

The story is similar in North Dakota. Last year, winter came early and stayed late, heavy snow covered much of the state, and extreme temperatures were the norm. Deep snow covered the food supplies of many wildlife species, and extreme temperatures quickly depleted any remaining fat reserves.

Conditions were especially tough for deer and pronghorn, said Bill Haas, assistant chief of wildlife for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

“From a wildlife standpoint, we were really hoping for an easy winter this year,” Haase said. “Another winter like this would have been very devastating.”

Despite last winter’s harsh conditions, upland birds performed surprisingly well, as did bighorn sheep and elk, Haas said.

Bill Haas .jpg

Bill Haas, Assistant Chief of Wildlife, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department

For a while last fall, it looked like the region was in for a repeat of 2022-23, when winter began in November and lasted into April.

But it turned out not to be the case.

“We had that snowstorm in late October and I was thinking, ‘Boy, this is not good,’” Haas said. “Some deer are starting to go to the ranches already, but fortunately, we had a warm period before deer season and all the snow was gone, for the most part, before deer season.”

Since then, with the exception of an ice storm that hit much of the state after Christmas, conditions have been unusually calm.

“It was a much better winter than last year, that’s for sure,” Haase said. “We had that ice storm a few weeks ago, and that was a fairly large accumulation of ice in the Southeast, but fortunately, it was followed by mild weather, so that was good.”

Deer aren’t the only species that benefit from benign winters. Conditions remain favorable for upland birds as well, although the bare ground does not provide shelter for snow-roosting birds such as ruffed grouse and prairie grouse.

“They’re all using the snow to roost on the ice, and they didn’t necessarily need to do that this year,” the DNR’s Klimek said. “It wasn’t that cold.

“These species of birds are in good condition. They are able to access food and move around without any problem.”

MNDNR turkeys

Wild turkeys can now be found almost everywhere in Minnesota.

Contributed/Minnesota DNR

The same is true for wild turkeys, which are a relative newcomer to northwest Minnesota, Klimek said.

“They’re everywhere now, everywhere in the state,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a county in the state that doesn’t have wild turkeys. They’re another species that the cold can’t get to, it’s the depth of the snow. Just like deer, if the snow is too deep, they won’t be able to access food and move around as well. That’s when you’ll see Turkey mortality rate, but in a mild winter like this year, turkeys are doing much better than they have the past two winters.

There have also been fewer complaints of creatures like deer and turkeys getting into farmers’ hay and other feed supplies.

“It’s very minimal – almost no complaints,” Haase said. “Last year, our employees were very busy. They didn’t have time to do a lot of their other job duties. They had to prioritize looting, so this year they’re able to catch up and get some of the other job duties done that were neglected last year.”

Hazard maps tell the story

One of the most notable examples of the difference between this winter and last winter is the Winter Severity Index, a metric used by the Minnesota DNR to measure the impact of winter on deer. To calculate the WSI, one point is accumulated for each day the air temperature is 0°F or colder, with an additional point added for each day with at least 15 inches of snow on the ground.

By the end of winter, an index of 120 points or higher indicates a severe winter, while an index of 50 points or lower indicates a mild winter.

WSI County Map 2023.jpg

Contributed/Minnesota DNR

Last year, a large swath of northeastern Minnesota and parts of northwestern Minnesota were in the severe category by the end of winter. By comparison this year, the entire state was in the “moderate” category as of January 24.

WSI County Map 2024.png

Contributed/Minnesota DNR

“It’s not a perfect system, but we didn’t get any points,” Klimek said. “We had a few subzero days, but even then it wasn’t that bad.”

The only wildlife that may lose out during winters like this are predators like gray wolves and coyotes, he said.

“Not to the extent that it would impact the population as a whole, but wolves are not able to hunt deer quite easily during winters like this,” Klimek said. “They do their best work, in terms of capturing and killing prey like deer, when the winter is long and the snow is deep and deer have difficulty navigating.

“They have a little more difficulty catching prey in winters like this.”

From a management standpoint, the lack of snow is also a setback for aerial deer surveys in North Dakota, and potentially the annual winter elk survey in northwestern Minnesota. North Dakota has not yet been able to conduct any of the winter deer surveys, which it traditionally uses to help determine license numbers for the following hunting season, Haas said.

“If we get a foot of snow across the level in any unit, we’ll fly it out, and we’ll be ready to go right away,” he said. “But other than that, at this point, we won’t be able to do any aerial deer surveys. But you know what? That’s OK this year, we’ll accept that. That’s OK.”

The department has been able to conduct its own aerial surveys of elk in western North Dakota, Haas said.

“We are still able to fly without snow,” he said. “We are in the process of completing those things now.”

In northwestern Minnesota, by comparison, snow is essential for spotting elk in the forested landscapes of the DNR’s survey area.

Elk survey image.jpg

Elk move through a swath of trees in northwestern Minnesota in this undated image from the Department of Natural Resources’ aerial winter elk survey. Snow, which decreases during the winter of 2023-2024, is critical for elk detection in the forested landscape of the survey area.

Contributed/Minnesota DNR

“The desired snow conditions are not there,” Klimek said. “We will continue to monitor opportunities through the end of February to do this. Survey protocol requires at least 8 inches on the ground, and we are barely there now.

Without the survey, the DNR may have to be more conservative in allocating once-in-a-lifetime elk tags in northwestern Minnesota. The DNR did not survey in the winter of 2021 either, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a slight decrease in tags, Klimek said.

“If we couldn’t actually do a survey this year, I would expect us to reduce the number of signs, but those decisions haven’t been made yet,” he said. “This is how I feel.”

From a fishing standpoint, the lack of thick ice and deep snow is a positive development – ​​at least for the fish – because it reduces the chances of a winter kill. Last winter, about 40 North Dakota lakes saw at least some fish kills, and the winter fish kills in about 30 lakes were significant, said Greg Bauer, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

Winterkill occurs when heavy snow on top of the ice reduces light penetration, preventing aquatic plants from producing oxygen through photosynthesis. When plants die and decompose, they deplete dissolved oxygen levels to the point where fish cannot survive.

This year, by comparison, is “a complete 180” from last winter, Power said.

Greg Bauer

Greg Bauer, Chief Fisheries, North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department

“Conditions are better prepared for survival under the ice,” he said. The lack of runoff can be a problem in the spring, but at least there won’t be back-to-back harsh winters with significant winter kill.

“It’s a double-edged sword, winter in North Dakota,” Power said. “From a biologist’s perspective, you worry about winter kill, but you also need that runoff. We always say the ideal scenario would be a winter like we had and then we end up in March and April — rain and snow.”

It remains to be seen whether this will happen – and what the rest of the winter holds. But for now, at least, the winter of 2023-2024 will be one for the record books.

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