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Deer have bunched up in big numbers in several places in the state as they attempt to survive through a very challenging winter season. Although December was stressful on wildlife, warmer weather in recent days has alleviated immediate concerns over the welfare of wildlife in North Dakota. Photo by Minot Daily News.

Conditions improve for wildlife in ND after deadly stretch

MINOT, N.D. — Conditions facing North Dakota's wildlife this winter have not been the best, but much of January has been a big improvement over December.

After December's heavy snowfall across the state, then sub-zero temperatures, it was a disastrous start for wildlife like deer and pheasants.

Now, thanks to a break from snow and days of more seasonal temperatures, the early winter reports of dead and dying deer and pheasants have tapered off considerably, according to North Dakota Game and Fish Department officials.

Young and weak wildlife that was susceptible to adverse weather conditions made up the bulk of early deaths attributed to the weather. Lately, thanks to winds that have blown some hilltops free of snow and warmer temperatures that have further helped expose ground, wildlife are coping better.

"Thank goodness for January. We didn't need another December," said Jeb Williams, department wildlife division chief. "The warmer weather definitely helped out. Wildlife was really struggling out there."

What became known as the "Christmas blizzard" of 2016, the third significant storm of the winter, dumped so much snow on the landscape that it became virtually impossible for wildlife to reach their usual winter food supplies. Pheasants couldn't reach food sources buried under deep snow. Deer have the ability to paw and scratch to uncover whatever food is available underneath the snow, but the snow was so deep that moving about was difficult. That meant many deer were forced to find whatever was edible in a limited area

When sub-zero temperatures settled in for several days and nights, whatever fat reserves birds and animals had built up for winter survival had to be burned to combat the cold. The result was that the survival of much of the state's wildlife became dependent on the weather. Compounding the problem facing wildlife is that much of their winter cover, tree rows and cattail sloughs, were filled in with drifts of snow.

Game and Fish recently completed their aerial deer surveys, something that hasn't been possible on a statewide basis for a few years due to limited snowfall. This year, with snow on the ground, deer were quite visible to those conducting the surveys. To date, results of the surveys have been pleasantly surprising.

"There's been pretty good numbers of white-tailed deer in some parts of the state," said Williams. "It's been a tough winter with a lot of snow, but it's been good conditions to survey deer. There's a couple good indicators going on right now."

One of the indicators of deer survival referred to by Williams is the number of depredation complaints received from landowners. Williams estimated about 185 landowners have contacted department personnel about too many deer invading food supplies set aside for wintering livestock.

"We're doing our best to help them out," explained Williams.

Deer have yarded up in big numbers at several locations in the state. In some cases those large herds have brought in deer from long distances, particularly as travel avenues have opened up due to more favorable weather conditions over the past few weeks.

"We know we've already lost some deer and pheasants but we don't know the extent," said Williams. "A lot of it we really won't know until we do some spring surveys."

Williams said Game and Fish remains concerned about the status of wildlife this winter, particularly when considering that several weeks of winter remains. He said the department will probably re-fly their deer survey routes again in March and compare the results to those compiled earlier this month.