From a distance of 30 yards or more, hungry deer stood still and watched people interact on a farm west of Menahga, Minn. Disadvantaged this winter by deep snow and bitter cold, the deer lost their wariness of humans and were raiding livestock hay.
From the southern boundary of Crow Wing County to the tip of the Northwest Angle, Minnesota’s whitetail deer have been battling winter conditions considered severe or well on their way to becoming severe, state wildlife officials say. In places like Fergus Falls, Bemidji and Detroit Lakes, the Department of Natural Resources has been receiving scattered reports of fawns dying from starvation. Predation by wolves — usually greater than normal in deep snow conditions — also could be taking a toll.
The predictable misery for deer is arriving after two months of energy-sapping snow depths and unrelenting stretches of subzero temperatures. February in International Falls, for example, was the seventh coldest on record. Wind, too, has been a problem, refilling deer tracks and travel corridors with blown snow.
Depending on how the remainder of winter plays out, mortality could be a factor in lowering or not raising harvest limits for 2022 in certain areas, said Barb Keller, the DNR’s big game program supervisor. Many regions inhospitable to deer this winter were already below deer-management population goals for density, she said.
“Conditions are severe in a good portion of northern Minnesota,” Keller said. “Deer are having trouble getting around.”
A strong March thaw would lower the troublesome snowpack and provide relief, but the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center says the outlook through March 30 is leaning toward precipitation that would be 33% to 40% above normal. The same 30-day outlook for temperatures is leaning 33% to 40% below normal.
Erik Thorson, DNR wildlife manager for the Park Rapids area, was making a farm visit near Menahga in Wadena County when he encountered the hungry deer. Snow in that portion of the state is more than 2 feet deep in many places, covering browse and some deer in poor leaving body condition.
“The deer just stood and watched us from the adjacent grove waiting to get back to the hay they were feeding on,” he said.
On another farm he visited recently west of Bemidji, deer have been bedding down very close to hay storage despite the running of machines and other activity. Winter conditions in the area are among the worst he has seen for deer in the past 20 years — similar to harsh winters that fell back to back starting in 2012.
“The deer are certainly hungry,” Thorson said. “They’re low on energy.”
The desperation has prompted an increase in complaints from farmers and ranchers about deer feeding on stored crops, Thorson said. Elsewhere, the animals are sometimes confined to their own trails or congregate in places like logging sites where snow is packed down and they can browse on fallen trees and limbs.
So far, to the benefit of the herds, the snow has remained powdery, Thorson said. When the surface gets crusty, mobilitys.
“It’s concerning … we’re kind of on the fence right now,” Thorson said. “If we have more winter in March it will make things difficult.”
At the DNR, wildlife managers estimate winter’s wallop on deer with the help of color-coded maps keyed to a Winter Severity Index. The maps, one drawn according to deer-hunting permit areas and the other drawn by county boundaries, provide weekly snapshots updated each Thursday.
Produced in partnership with Minnesota IT Services, the index is calculated by accumulating 1 point for each day with an ambient temperature of zero degrees or less. An additional point is added for each day with a snow depth of 15 inches or more. Accumulated values of 50 or less indicate a mild winter while 120 or more grades out as “severe.”
Keller said Deer Permit Area 130, stretching north and south between Babbitt and Two Harbors, was first to earn a snow point. That arrived in late December, a month when temperatures in the state were generally above normal. By mid-January, air temps were tanking and most permit areas in northeastern Minnesota were accumulating daily snow points. Now a section of Deer Permit Area 130 is clearly coded as a location of severe winter. It’s part of a severe winter band that stretches continuously through Lake and Cook counties to Grand Portage at the tip of the Arrowhead region.
Keller said the worst winter incision ranking so far this season belongs to Itasca State Park, home of Deer Permit Area 287. Park naturalist Connie Cox said some forested areas have up to 26 inches of snow. The state park has experienced repeated night-time temperatures of 30-below zero, she said. On the bright side, Cox said, those frigid nights may have been cold enough to kill insect larvae that could otherwise become a threat to the park’s conifer stands. She said Itasca’s deer don’t appear to be losing body mass, but they are restricted in movement and sticking to the park’s trails.
Another hard-hit area away from the North Shore is the northwest corner of Itasca County, south of Northome and east of Blackduck. DNR conservation officer Vinny Brown was in Northome Thursday, parked next to snow piles that were as high as the roof of his pickup truck. But even in mild years, Brown said, the area doesn’t support high densities of deer. When he has spotted whitetails near the town this winter, they haven’t looked frail, he said.
In all of Hubbard County, south of Bemidji, snow was at least 18 inches deep by mid-February and the area is trending toward a severe winter. Deer abundance varies in the county, but at least one area was lacking in desired deer densities even before winter began. Given the hardships of January and February, wildlife managers might extend a conservative harvest strategy in the coming fall.
Deer tolerate sustained cold temperatures, but temperatures fell well below-normal in January and February, according to a report by the state Climatology Office. Northern Minnesota was the hardest hit.
The report noted, however, that the overall departure from “normal” this winter pertains to averages from 1991-2020. “What appears to qualify as ‘cold’ or ‘well below-normal’ now, was somewhat more common in decades past. ,” the report said.