GRAND FORKS — The winter of 2016-17 started out on a dicey note for wildlife managers, who feared the impact of heavy snow and prolonged cold on species such as deer and pheasants. At the same time, fisheries managers braced themselves for winterkill, which can occur when snow builds up atop the ice and underwater plants produce less of the dissolved oxygen fish and other aquatic life need to survive.
After a nasty December, the consensus in early March is things could have been worse if not for prolonged mild stretches of unseasonable weather in January and February.
As winter enters the homestretch — hopefully — here’s a look at how fish and wildlife are faring across the region.
North Dakota wildlife
As a wildlife manager, Jeb Williams says December, with its triple-whammy of cold, snow and wind, was cause for concern in parts of North Dakota, especially in the central part of the state where some of the heaviest snow fell.
No doubt there were losses to high-profile species such as deer and pheasants.
Then January hit.
“Not very often can you say thank goodness for January and February, but that was kind of the case this year,” said Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. “The winter itself is not looking like a bad winter — just a horrible December.”
After December’s wintry blast, which seemed especially harsh following a summerlike November, Williams says he and others feared a repeat of severe winters such as 1996-97 and 2009-10, which were disastrous for wildlife.
Among the hardest-hit areas was a band stretching from Sioux County in the south-central part of the state north to Minot.
“They were socked in pretty darn tight,” Williams said.
Snowed out of traditional habitat and food sources, deer were drawn to ranches and farmyards, and depredation complaints soared, Williams said.
“We dealt with as many complaints in December as we have in a long time,” he said. “Even in above-average winters, most of the complaints don’t start to come in until after the first of the year — usually January with cold and snowfall — but with December, we had snow, we had cold and we had wind. Those critters didn’t have anyplace to go, and they were forced to go where there was winter cover and food sources.”
On the upside, the December snow allowed Game and Fish to conduct aerial white-tailed deer surveys for the first time in four years, Williams said.
Snow is crucial to spotting deer from the air.
“I don’t have the finally tally, but anecdotally, there were some areas with nice numbers, and not surprisingly, some areas with lower deer numbers,” Williams said.
Deer numbers looked good in the western and south-central parts of the state, but lower in parts of eastern North Dakota, he said.
The onset of unusually warm temperatures in January and February helped settle and deplete some of the deep snow that blanketed the landscape earlier in the winter, Williams said.
Still, Williams said, winter isn’t over yet, and time will tell the extent of losses to deer and pheasants.
“There were a lot of concerns early on, but January and February have lessened the concern to some degree,” Williams said. “Overall, though, with the January and February we’ve had, we feel pretty good about the negative impact, overall, this winter has had on critters.”
No doubt March and April can deliver nasty weather, but snow tends to disappear faster as the days grow longer and the sun packs more punch.
Williams said the department has gotten a few recent reports of additional pheasant losses as snow cover melts, and birds that succumbed to the harsh December weather become visible.
“We know there’s some loss, but we think the impact is definitely lessened with the weather we had in January and February,” Williams said.
For pheasants, at least, the results from spring crowing counts and late summer brood count surveys will be more telling in terms of the impact on bird numbers and hunting prospects. The continued loss of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and resulting loss of habitat makes it harder for wildlife to bounce back from tough winters, Williams said.
CRP, which peaked in North Dakota at more than 3.5 million acres in the mid-2000s, will be closer to 1 million acres this fall as more contracts expire, Williams said.
“There’s definitely some concern” about CRP loss, he said. “One of the things that helped us in the past with some tough winters was the ability to rebound from tough winters.”
Northeast N.D. lakes
Randy Hiltner said he feared the worst for northeast North Dakota lakes going into January, but the mild temperatures that gave wildlife a reprieve had a similar impact on lakes by reducing the threat of winterkill.
“If it would have stayed cold with lots of snow, I think there’d be a lot more bad news in terms of winterkill,” said Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake.
Game and Fish manages about 55 fisheries in the northeast part of the state, Hiltner said.
As they do every winter, fisheries personnel sampled lakes across the district in January and February testing the water for dissolved oxygen content.
Winterkill occurs when oxygen levels get too low.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the readings we were getting through that time period,” Hiltner said.
Only four district lakes — Sykeston Dam in Wells County, Buffalo Lake west of Esmond, Warsing Dam near Sheyenne and Niagara Dam in Grand Forks County — showed low oxygen levels, and they’re traditionally low in dissolved oxygen, Hiltner said.
“I was a little bit worried about some of our more recent fisheries we developed down in Wells County because they had lost a lot of water last summer, and fall levels went down maybe 2 or 3 feet,” Hiltner said. “They were fairly shallow to start, but as of February, they still had good oxygen levels.”
Hiltner said fisheries staff will recheck a handful of lakes, including several in the Turtle Mountains, in the next few weeks.
“Sometimes, they lose a lot of oxygen from the first part of February to the first week of March,” Hiltner said. “Overall, I was surprised oxygen held as well as it did, but that might be due to the late ice-up we had. Lakes weren’t ice-capped very early.”
While it’s too early to speculate on the extent of winterkill — if any — that occurs, Hiltner said ample snowfall in some parts of the district and the ensuing runoff will be good in the long run by replenishing water levels on some of the district lakes.
That’s good for production and, ultimately, fishing.
The onset of milder, mellow weather in January also kept wildlife losses in check across northwest Minnesota.
“We’re not out of the woods,” said John Williams, regional wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. “We can’t say that things are going to be peachy, but I can say the severity of winter and the condition of our wildlife is definitely benefiting from those warm days.”
Williams said a thermometer at his home near Bemidji registered 59 degrees for a high temperature during the recent late-February warm snap.
“Mind boggling” is how he described the weather.
“All of these type of things buy wildlife, and deer in particular, I would say, a little bit of a break,” Williams said.
That bodes well for another strong fawn crop.
As of last week, basically the southern two-thirds of Minnesota was snow-free. In northwest Minnesota, only the northwesternmost corner of Kittson County had a foot or more of snow, based on a map the DNR posted on its website. Much of northern Minnesota had anywhere from a trace to 6 inches of snow remaining as of Thursday, March 2, and a small portion of the Arrowhead in far northeast Minnesota had the deepest snow at 18 to 24 inches, based on a National Weather Service map.
The Winter Severity Index, which tallies the number of days below zero and days with 15 inches or more of snow on the ground, was 50 or lower across the southern part of the state, while areas north of Thief River Falls were ranked at 79, “which is nothing,” Williams said.
The higher the number, the more severe the winter.
“That’s an indication of a pretty mild winter when you’re looking at (late February),” Williams said.
Less snow on the ground also is good for wild turkeys, which have an easier time accessing food sources. Snow-roosting birds such as ruffed grouse and sharptails face the biggest potential threats from snow that is either diminished or rock hard.
“Ruffs are going to be up in the trees, and sharptails will be on the ground so hopefully there’s good grassland habitat,” Williams said.