Field reports: Some deer will die as winter snows pile up
If you've screamed uncle after shoveling in recent weeks, just imagine what the Northland's whitetail deer are going through.
Snow on the ground is a yard deep in some parts of Northeastern Minnesota, the snowiest region in the state. And even if it stopped snowing now, it's likely some fawns, bucks and even some previously healthy does will perish by spring.
Snow depths last week ranged from 38 inches on the ground 7 miles north of Two Harbors, 32 inches near Island Lake north of Duluth, 31 inches at Wolf Ridge near Finland and at Cohasset, to 26 inches at Cloquet and Isabela. Duluth officially reported 24 inches on the ground, down from 27 inches earlier in the week as the snow settles.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources winter severity index awards one point for each day with 15 inches or more snow on the ground and another point for every day below zero.
An average winter severity index in northern Minnesota is 115 by the time the snow melts below 15 inches and the last sub-zero days are past. The DNR says that number leads to about a 10 percent die-off of deer.
But this year will be worse, said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager in Tower covering a large portion of the Arrowhead region. Rusch said the DNR's winter severity index already has hit 100 in his area with several weeks of winter yet to go.
"You can see the deer really struggling to get through the snow. Especially the fawns,'' Rusch said. "It's getting worse for them with every snowfall."
Rusch said snow depth, especially the duration of deep snow, is the most important factor in deer winter survival in northern Minnesota. Cold weather is less of an impact, although extreme cold can cause deer to burn critical fat reserves faster.
Rusch estimates the WSI for his area will hit at least 145 and maybe 150 or higher by the end of this winter. That's considered a hard winter and will lead to higher than average deer die-off — more than 10 percent.
"Even if we say that we're almost done with the extreme cold, the snow we have isn't going anywhere through March or even into early April,'' Rusch said. "By the end of winter it (the WSI) is going be right up there with some of our tough winters."
Severe winters can impact herds when young, old or under-nourished deer can perish and when does can have fewer or no fawns the following spring because their winter nutrition isn't good enough. Fawns and mature bucks (stressed from mating last fall) are the first to go, followed by previously healthy does.
Anything around 180 is considered extremely severe when as many as half the deer in an area may perish, Rusch said. The worst winter severity index in recent years was 212 in 2014, a winter that knocked-down deer numbers across the region to the point it took several years for deer numbers to recover.
But Rusch said the one-two punch of a 202 index in 1996 and a 162 index in 1997 had the most devastating impact on the Northeastern Minnesota deer herd. That's when one study showed 40 percent of adult does died. It's likely a much higher percentage of fawns and bucks died then, Rusch said, and it took several years of mild winters for the herd to rebound.
While moose have long legs and are built to withstand current conditions, deer — which moved into the region over the last century — are not. Deer do seek out protected areas in cedar swamps, along the south-facing North Shore, and other areas with less snow. But deep snow makes it difficult for them to move around and find food. It also makes them more vulnerable to wolves.
"We're on the very northern edge of whitetail range. This (hard winters) has always been a factor,'' Rusch noted. "It's very difficult to keep high deer numbers up here with our occasional hard winters and predators like wolves."
DNR moving fast after CWD found in wild Crow Wing County deer
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is asking Crow Wing County landowners to obtain free permits to shoot deer on their land this month so more animals can be tested for chronic wasting disease.
The DNR also is asking for permission to allow federal sharpshooters onto private land to kill more deer. The only way to test for CWD is after the animal is dead, requiring a sample of brain tissue.
The always fatal deer disease was confirmed last month in a wild deer found dead north of Brainerd, the farthest north the disease has been found in a wild Minnesota animal.
In addition to obtaining more samples to determine how prevalent the disease is in the immediate area, within two miles of where the CWD-positive deer was found, the shooting also will cull the local herd and reduce the chance of any CWD spread, the DNR hopes.
The moves come after a winter of extra hunting seasons and sharpshooter deer killing efforts in southeastern Minnesota where the DNR is trying to keep that CWD outbreak confined to a relatively small area.
The DNR is hosting public meeting on the CWD issue from 7-8:30 p.m. Monday at Woods Restaurant,19624 County Road 3, just north of Brainerd. DNR staff will go over the surveillance results and explain the immediate CWD response efforts planned through early spring.
Representatives from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, which regulates farmed deer and elk, will also present information at the meeting. The DNR will make the presentations available online for people who are unable to attend.
The Crow Wing County CWD-positive deer, an adult female, was found Jan. 23. A conservation officer responded to a report of a dead deer less than a mile from a captive deer farm where CWD was found in deer in recent years but where the farmer declined to kill remaining animals on the farm. Test results released Feb. 14 confirmed the wild deer had CWD.
The DNR began surveillance around the deer farm starting in the 2017 hunting season, sampling more than 8,600 deer in the area with no CWD hits.
It's likely the DNR will continue and expand their CWD testing efforts during the November deer season this year.
CWD affects the cervid family — all kinds of deer, elk and moose. It spreads through contact with an infected deer's saliva, urine, blood, feces, antler velvet or carcass, and it can remain active in soil and even plants long after the host animal dies. There is no vaccine or treatment. CWD has never been confirmed to spread to humans who eat contaminated meat but one Canadian study found that monkeys who ate CWD-contaminated meat did become infected with the brain disease that is spurred by rogue proteins called prions. Go to mndnr.gov/cwd for more information on CWD.
Several state lawmakers, with support from the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, are pushing for more money to study CWD and tougher rules on fencing and other aspects of deer farming, including ordering deer farms to depopulate if any CWD is found.
Duluth a top fishing destination
The national fishing guide booking service FishingBooker.com has rated Duluth among the top-nine "up and coming fishing destinations" in the U.S.
The company says Duluth is among the most popular destinations for anglers who book guides through the service, with a huge increase in guide bookings here from 2017 to 2018.
Of course, Northlanders already know why this is such a great place to fish, but here's what FishingBoker had to say:
"What makes Duluth special? The great mix of river and lake, for one. Duluth sits on the shores of Lake Superior, with the winding waters of the St. Louis River running right through town. What that means for you is lots of walleye and lake trout, as well as salmon and steelhead. It's the best of both worlds.
"Duluth is also a historic trading town. Trappers and fur traders met here as far back as the 17th century and it's been an important port throughout much of its history. These days, it's a pleasant city of around 80,000 people with a rich cultural scene. Take time off the water to see a play, go to the ballet or just enjoy a locally-brewed beer."
FishingBooker claims to be the "world's largest platform for connecting anglers and fishing guides," with over 25,000 fishing trip options available in more than 1,750 cities worldwide and more than 80,000 trips booked last year.
BWCAW permits Monday... maybe
Will the third time be the charm? After two false starts in recent weeks the U.S. Forest Service plans to go live with permits for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness permits for the 2019 season starting Monday at 9 a.m. Go to recreation.gov/permits/233396. It's first come, first served.
Big sturgeon is record
As expected when reported here last month, the giant sturgeon caught Feb. 9 on the St. Croix River near the Twin Cities is a new state catch-and-release record for sturgeon and the biggest fish ever officially caught and released in Minnesota.
The Minnesota DNR recently confirmed the new record for the 78-inch fish caught by Darren Torseth of Jordan, Minn. The 120-pound sturgeon eclipsed the previous 73-inch catch-and-release record from May 2018, a sturgeon caught in the Rainy River.