Mild winter helps Upper Peninsula deer find food, avoid predators

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By Jon Gaskell

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan’s mild winter could mean more deer in the Upper Peninsula this year.

Does have more spring birthing success after mild winters. Photo: recubeJim (Flickr)

Experts say unusually warm weather could make more food sources available, giving deer access to more forage sites and an advantage over predators.

Those patterns could forecast an exceptional hunting season in the fall.

Brent Rudolph, deer and elk program leader for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said if mild temperatures and low snowfall persist through the rest of winter, deer populations could reproduce in greater numbers.

“The most critical time, in terms of having an impact on population, is early spring,” Rudolph said. “In the dead of winter, deer essentially hibernate on their feet. They only need enough energy to survive, but if they do survive in greater numbers, we could potentially see more fawns.”

Rudolph said the effect is limited to the U.P. since winters in the Lower Peninsula are not severe enough to significantly affect deer populations.

The past two winters also were mild in the U.P. As a result, does had more success birthing fawns in the spring.

“In a bad winter, does will preserve energy by reabsorbing their offspring, meaning they wouldn’t give birth to fawns they are carrying,” said Kristie Sitar, a DNR wildlife biologist in Newberry. “There would also be fewer multiple births in spring.”

“Every winter, the old deer and the unhealthy deer are going to die off, but in severe winters almost all of the fawns entering their first winter are going to die off. In winters like this, a majority of fawns will survive,” Sitar said.

To determine the effects of winter weather on wildlife populations, the department uses a measure called the winter severity index. It combines data on wind speed, temperature and precipitation to gauge whether conditions in a particular area are mild, moderate or severe.

According to the department, a severe winter could result in the starvation death of around 105,000 deer in the U.P. A moderate winter could see around 70,000 deaths and a mild winter could see 35,000 deer perish.

An estimated 270,000 deer live in the U.P.

During winter, deer seek shelter in deeryards, which are coniferous forests with less wind exposure, less snow cover and higher temperatures.

However, U.P. deeryards have been depleted by years of overuse and lack enough resources to carry herds through severe winters, according to Sitar.

“These yards have been browsed-out for decades here in the eastern U.P.,” Sitar said. “There isn’t enough food available to support large populations, so starvation would be serious.”

Rudolph said higher temperatures and decreased snow cover mean deer may venture away from the yards to forage.

Not only can mild winters help deer feed but can also help keep deer off their predators’ menu.

Rolf Peterson, a professor at Michigan Technological University, said less snow cover allows deer a better chance of escaping those that would eat them.

“The wolf kill rate is usually higher when deer are facing deep snow, which tends to concentrate deer in predictable places like deeryards,” Peterson said. “There is some security in numbers for deer in yards, but wolves will have less trouble testing many deer, singling out the most vulnerable.

“In the second half of winter, crusts on the surface of the snow formed by freeze-thaw will often support wolves, and then they are not slowed down at all by the snow that imprisons deer,” Peterson said.

Michigan officials estimate there are 687 wolves in the U.P.

Terry McFadden, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s Marquette Operations Service Center, said no matter what sort of weather comes between now and spring, he expects a substantial increase in deer populations and more incidents of deer damaging crops and property.

McFadden said nuisance deer have been a problem for farms in U.P. counties like Menominee, Iron, Alger, Dickinson, Delta and Marquette. He predicted an increase in the issuance of permits allowing landowners to hunt nuisance deer on their property.

Beyond issuing landowners permits, McFadden said local DNR offices are limited in what they can do to stop nuisance deer. Allowing more antlerless hunting or lengthening hunting seasons would be too broad a solution to help specific homeowners.

“There could be more incidents, but the only thing we can do is work with the individual landowners for now,” McFadden said.

6 thoughts on “Mild winter helps Upper Peninsula deer find food, avoid predators

  1. Pingback: An Abnormally Warm Winter Effects the Midwest | Military Outdoors

  2. Thanks Scoop, a perfect argument for keeping wolves on the landscape at their reproductive maintenance level, and social acceptance level. About 250 animals, as promised and agreed to by MI and USFWS.

  3. Paul is correct. I’m a wolf advocate, yet not the type who wants to see them inhabit every inch of the state, including my back yard. Wolves belong in wild places, at a sustainable number that takes mostly the older, injured or weaker of a species. Human hunters provide incredible economic benefits to the local, state and national economies and should not have to sit back and watch the federal government ruin one of the few “good things” that is still happening in our economy today. Hunting also provides stress-reducing recreation and health benefits and allows men, women and children to feed their families organic meat. Every so often perhaps, we might luck into one “big enough for the wall” to cherish and pass down to future generations of hunters to admire. Mostly, though, it’s just the framed and scrapbooked photos of days afield with families and friends, often returning home with nothing more than rosy cheeks and memories. Hunters long ago lobbied for regulated seasons, then license fees and excise taxes on equipment to be used for habitat, access and research. Are there some “slob” hunters? Yes, but they are the minority and need to be reported whenever violations are known or witnessed. That said, wolves need to be managed. When wolf numbers were near goals, there were few complaints from hunters, landowners and dog-owning hunters and property owners. Wolves killing livestock, pets and hunting hounds is unacceptable.

  4. Frankly, I would much rather see deer starve in a severe winter than feed TOO MANY wolves all-year-around. The original goal was to have about 250 wolves in the state, but, now having nearly 700 in the U.P. is far too many. The toll they are having on the deer and moose is far too great. After this spring’s breeding season there will be nearly 800 wolves, using the DNR’s recruitment value of 14%, and each year after that an additional 100, plus or minus, added to the population. I can see our deer herd being decimated until lack of deer causes wolf numbers to decrease. By that time deer hunting in the U.P. and maybe northern lower MI will be an exercise in futility. But, then this is what anti-hunters want, and the MI DNR and USFWS have fallen into their trap.

    What is needed is an annual wolf hunting and trapping season until the goal of 250 wolves is reached, plus an annual controlled hunt to keep them at that promised number. This is what some western states are doing, thinning wolf numbers back to the minimum maintenance level. They are taking the agreements they signed on to with USFWS seriously. MI, WI and MN should be following suit.

  5. It will be important to keep track of wolf numbers in future years if we want to minimize deer starvation. Wolves (and coyotes) help keep deer numbers for reaching unsustainable levels. If wolf numbers decrease due to factors like new wolf management regulations, and our winters continue to be mild with below-average snowfall here, we could get a big spike in deer numbers due to greater winter survival and less wolf predation. Then, should we have a sudden severe winter such as that of 1995-1996, we could end up with catastrophic deer losses. We only have to look back to the situation that occurred on Isle Royale, with moose numbers suddenly plummeting. It is quite possible that if the wolves that some hunters seem to love to hate were do decrease in numbers that could actually hurt deer numbers after a severe winter.

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