For deer here in the Northland, April is the cruelest month. Even in a normal winter, many deer survive months of subzero temperatures, belly-deep powder and plate-glass springtime crust only to exhaust their final reserves just before the last snows melt and the first green shoots emerge.
But this has not been a normal winter.
In this area, less than a third of all fawns live long enough to see their first snowflake. Of those that do, many don’t make it through their first winter. It’s tough for them to push through deep snow or reach an overhead browse line. When there’s a limited food source, adult deer may push them away. Fawns have minimal fat reserves and, being smaller, they have more surface area in proportion to their body mass. As a result, they lose heat more quickly than would a larger deer. Biologists believe the critical November weight threshold for fawns is somewhere between 77 and 88 pounds.
For all these reasons, fawns typically represent 80 percent to 90 percent of total winter mortality. But after a winter like the one we’ve just experienced, that number might be as low as 50 percent. This year many adult deer won’t make it, either. Even if they’re still alive today, they may not last until Mayday. The ones that do are metabolic miracles.
So far, deer in North America have survived about 4 million cold winters - and nearly all of them without relying on corn from our backyard feeders. True, some individual deer haven’t survived some winters. But the species as a whole has survived them all. By now, deer have evolved to do just fine most winters on very minimal amounts of woody browse. They do it by storing up as much fat as possible and then burning as little of it as possible while waiting for spring. Their metabolism slows dramatically, and they spend most of the nights - and also, for that matter, most of the days - bedded down where they’re sheltered from the wind, preferably under the thermal cover of conifers. Even on the coldest winter nights, temperatures are a few degrees warmer in these hidden microclimes.
Recently, a blogger for a major outdoor magazine suggested landowners concerned about the fate of their winter-stressed deer go out to check on them. Follow their tracks, see what they’re eating, and find the spots where they’re bedding down. To be fair, he may have been offering that advice for readers who live farther south. Around here, there’s no need to verify your neighborhood deer are once again bedded down in that same patch of spruces where you see their tracks every winter. If you want to help them, don’t go check up on them every other day. Leave them alone.
Meanwhile, many antler-obsessed hunters have taken up the brand-new springtime sport of shed hunting. About now they’re out in the woods every weekend, studying the ground for antlers deer already have shed. The best shed hunters are persistent enough to follow deer trails wherever they lead. They’re the ones who find antlers. They often spot deer to which those antlers had once been attached, and they bump even more deer they never see. As they make their way into the thickest cover and bedding areas, they bump some deer repeatedly.
This year those deer will be running on empty, and running anywhere will not improve their chances of survival. In fact, those extra hundred-yard dashes through the Northland’s remaining crust may even push a few of them over the edge.
Nature wastes nothing. Wolves and coyotes will feast, as will hungry bears awakening from more months of hibernation than usual. But if you’d like to see more deer on Mayday, and if you’d also like to see more deer - including some with antlers - next fall when deer season rolls around, then maybe it’s time to skip a year of shed hunting.
Al Cambronne (alcambronne.com) of Gordon, Wis., is the author of “Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.” He wrote this for the News Tribune.