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Winter Wildlife Update

Dakota Country Staff Report


A Tough Season for Wildlife

The delicate life cycle of pheasants is strained this witner season, especially in North Dakota.

For sportsmen in particular, the winter of their nightmares has descended upon the Dakotas. It came early, it came hard. As hard as any in recent memory.

By early January, record snowfall and cold covered many areas of the Dakotas, most of the damage in central North Dakota. The heavy snow has limited not only ice fishing access, but has created life-and-death drama for wildlife.

“Yeah, I’d say we’re in trouble,” said Dickinson, North Dakota Game and Fish upland bird biologist Aaron Robinson in early January. “It’s not good. We’ll be in a world of hurt next year. Birds won’t rebound, not like in previous years.”

When mentioning “rebounding” problems, Robinson was referring mostly to the decline in habitat, which, even in severe winter years, would allow upland birds to recover in spring. But not now. With CRP losses, along with shelterbelt destruction and increased crop production, wildlife losses aren’t going to come back like they have in years with adequate cover.

The Dakotas, particularly North Dakota, suffered three consecutive years of hard winters from 2008 through 2011. Winters came early and extended their hardship into April. Even at that, CRP habitat was adequate in springtime to allow favorable hatching conditions.

“I don’t foresee that happening (next spring)” Robinson said. “There’s a ceiling to their ability to come back.”

His pessimism for the future of much of our wildlife continued.

“I think, and I’m going out on a limb here, our years of harvesting half a million birds are over for awhile,” he said. “This is the worst, right now. Winter came so early and so hard. Things could change with a February thaw, but if the pattern continues as it has, we’re in big trouble.”

If there were only one element of winter that dominated its ugly head, the situation might be better. But the worst conditions possible hit the Northern Plains right after Thanksgiving and didn’t relent. Central North Dakota received nearly 20 inches of snow on three days in late November, followed by subzero temperatures and… worst of all, perhaps, strong, unrelenting wind. More snow hit the following week, but it still allowed pheasants to scratch their way into cut cornfields. Then, the big storm that hit central North Dakota on Christmas Day laid another 14 inches of snow on top of everything, pretty much eliminating chances for pheasants to get to needed food.

While the situation is better in South Dakota, there was an area in the north-central part of the state that was hit with an ice storm, and dead pheasants were reported by the public. Additionally, the central part of the state was hit on Christmas Day with another ice-storm, and before it froze areas like Pierre received 3/4-inch of rain that left a solid sheet on everything for several weeks. The ice coating made it difficult for pheasants to get to the bottoms of grain fields.

South Dakota, Game, Fish and Parks biologist, Travis Runia, said that was pretty much the only area of concern as of early January, with snow depths mostly in the teens (inches) in the main pheasant range.

“We’re not totally concerned with conditions right now,” he said last month. “South Dakota has fared better than North Dakota, except for an ice storm that hit a 6-county area early. That affected Faulk, Edmunds, McPherson, Potter, Walworth and Campbell counties. Dead pheasants were reported by the public.”

No single winter weather element is worse than the other for wildlife.

“It’s the combination of all those things,” Robinson said, “that puts wildlife in trouble.”

Asked about the most hardship on pheasants, and if, in fact, they actually starve to death or die of exposure, Robinson said their lack of ability to store fat reserves is their demise.

“They don’t starve to death, per se,” he said. “They lose their ability to thermo-regulate. The exposure (to the elements) kills them.”

He explained that because of their physical makeup, they have to have food, certainly, but they have to feed much more often than, say deer. Pheasants are unable to maintain fat serves like big game animals.

“Deer can store large fat reserves,” he said. “Pheasants can’t. They burn fat faster and have to continually replenish. They have to eat regularly and often to keep warm and regenerate energy. Pheasants have only a small ability to store fat. They continually search for food, but that alone will not assure them of survival. As winter progresses it will become increasingly difficult for them. Their bodies will literally eat themselves.”

For that reason, they bunch up quickly in times of intense cold and heavy snow. Most of all, right now, they move into farmyards to escape wind and find food, a natural winter progression. That movement, however, seldom occurs this early in the winter season.

‘Farmsteads are the only things going for them,” he said. “It’s the only place where they can get out of the wind and find some food,” Robinson said. “CRP is no good in winter, and neither are cattails and corn. It just fills up.”

Pheasants need to continually maintain energy levels to survive, and eating is the main way to do that. But they also need shelter, and with diminishing habitat in the Dakotas in recent years, combined with winters that fill all available habitat with snow, there’s no place to go but farmsteads.

As with most things, timing is everything. The early winter was a strong negative factor in putting upland birds (and deer) on the defensive. But without a break, without an extended warm spell, and with the prospect winter could last into April, the duration of winter could make for a horrible forecast for survival.

While periodic thaws will help, there’s a hidden factor as well. With each thaw, a crust develops on the snowtop on fields, adding another layer for pheasants to have to chip through to get to food for life-saving energy.

A lot of conditions have to combine to keep birds going. A prolonged break in weather, something approaching at least a week or even 10 days, will help, Robinson said. Anything, he said, will help. But as winter wears on, chances of survival diminish.

“Layer after layer of crust will make it more and more difficult for them to break through and get to food,” he said.

Among other species, pheasants and deer herded in large numbers by late December. That’s highly unusual. Asked why wildlife does that, Robinson said, “They herd for strength. There’s strength in numbers. They’re exposed to the elements and predators. Once they find food, it attracts other birds (and deer), and they will take the path of least resistance in difficult times.”

Asked about “ideal” habitat, Robinson pretty much concluded that in winter, they isn’t any. Farmsteads are the salvation of the species. Cattails fill in, along with remaining CRP and even creek bottoms. Some tree rows will blow clear, but that’s minimal.

Finally, there’s the human element. Does feeding wildlife help them survive?

“My department will discard that, but any food will help,” he said. “Any grain, corn. Any food they can get will help them produce energy to keep going.”

But, he added, be sure to place feed in areas that won’t attract predators like coyotes and eagles and hawks, making birds even more vulnerable.

“Common sense is the key,” he said.

At this point, there are still at least two hard months of winter remaining in the Dakotas, maybe more. History on the Northern Plains shows that April blizzards are among the worst, especially because they pack wet, heavy snow into vulnerable areas and take exceptionally long periods to melt. And they are always accompanied by intense wind.

Deer, and antelope to a lesser degree, will sustain fat reserves longer than pheasants and other upland birds. But it was noticeable that even deer in good health were already “herding” in late December in central areas of North Dakota, a sign that either they know something we don’t or the extreme weather affected them earlier than usual as well.

Life is harsh on the Northern Plains, even in times of cohesive weather that allows all living things to breath easier. This winter could be listed among the worst before it’s over, bringing to mind the ever-increasing importance of habitat for all wildlife.