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Cold, snowy winter beginning to affect wildlife, outdoor recreation in parts of region

The Winter Severity Index at Norris Camp southeast of Warroad, Minnesota, was 61 as of Tuesday, Jan. 25. That's higher than the average of 42 for this time of the winter, but still below the winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97, which set a benchmark for winter severity in recent times.

Eric deer February 2019.jpg
A small herd of deer beds down in a wooded area in East Grand Forks in February 2019. Snow and cold weather conditions are beginning to create challenges for deer on both sides of the Red River again this winter.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — The winter of 2020-21 was pretty much a nonevent in terms of cold and deep snow and its impact on wildlife and outdoor recreation.

This winter is turning out to be much more formidable on both counts.

“It’s getting tough with each passing day here, it seems,” said Brian Prince, wildlife resource management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake.

It's important, the tougher the winter is, that people are cognizant about where wildlife are and really view wildlife from a distance.

That’s apparent by the number of calls he’s getting from livestock producers with deer depredation problems, Prince said Monday, Jan. 24.

“It was pretty good up until today,” he said. “Things started happening today – calls started coming in. A few guys I’m talking to are saying it’s getting pretty difficult for deer now. They’re starting to move into stored livestock feed supplies.”

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Subzero temperatures and deep snow also are beginning to create challenges for deer in northwest Minnesota. Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake Wildlife Management Area at Norris Camp southeast of Warroad, said the WMA as of Tuesday, Jan. 25, already had recorded 39 days with temperatures of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder and 22 days with 16 inches or more of snow on the ground.

That translates into a Winter Severity Index of 61, Mehmel says, higher than the average of 42 for this time of the winter, but still below the winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97, which set a benchmark for winter severity in recent times.

The WSI is a measurement the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources uses to tally the number of days with air temperatures of 0 degrees F or colder and at least 15 inches of snow on the ground. The WSI can increase by 2 points a day if both conditions are met; a value of 50 or less at the end of the winter indicates a mild winter, and a value of 120 or higher indicates a severe winter.

By this time in 1995-96 and 1996-97, the WSI at Norris Camp already was 106 and 105, respectively, Mehmel said, and continued to build well past severe levels as the winter progressed.

“In general, a WSI over 100 is when the winter becomes significantly difficult for deer,” she said.

NDGF offers help

In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department offers a few options for producers with deer depredation problems. If it’s second- or third-cutting alfalfa bales, Prince says the Game and Fish Department has black plastic sheeting available that producers can use as a barrier.

More long-term or chronic problems could require deer-proof fencing, Prince says, and the department offers a hay yard program that consists of a 2½-acre enclosure for producers to protect their livestock feed supplies.

The materials for the program are fully funded by the department, which also offers cost-share assistance for producers who need assistance with putting up the fencing, Prince said.

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“We try to utilize that as often as we can for those that have chronic problems,” Prince said. “It’s quite lucrative and it provides the best level of protection.”

Like deer, wild turkeys also can be very dependent on livestock operations in the winter, he said. That’s especially true in areas such as northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, which are outside of typical wild turkey range even though the birds generally are doing well.

So far, at least, Prince says he hasn’t gotten any turkey complaints.

“For a while, we were seeing turkeys moving into the edges of towns and things like that, and we still have some in Devils Lake here, too,” he said. “That’s kind of a tricky situation, too, because some people feed the birds in the wintertime, and those turkeys definitely make their presence known. It’s almost like they have a daily routine of hitting feeders in town, and one person loves seeing them, and the next one just despises them.”

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Ruffed grouse are well-suited to northern winters and benefit from deep snow, which gives the birds a place to burrow to escape the elements and avoid predators.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

Native wildlife such as sharp-tailed grouse and ruffed grouse are well-adapted to Northland winters, Prince said, and burrow into the snow for cover. Pheasants, by comparison, tend to have a tougher time.

Sharptail roosts February 2016.jpg
Holes in the snow betray the site where two sharp-tailed grouse roosted in February 2016 in Roseau County of northwest Minnesota. Sharptails and ruffed grouse both rely on snow for winter cover.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

“This may be one of those years where the pheasant population that kind of built its way up with some mild winters is going to go south again,” Prince said. “It’s just the ebb and flow of those extremes. When we have a few winters back to back that aren’t too difficult, they can definitely make strides north and east (in North Dakota), but one difficult winter, and their numbers head back south again, so we’ll have to see what we’ve got after this winter.”

The abundance of snow across the region has been a boon for snowmobile and skiing trails, and conditions generally are good to excellent, but cold weather has limited traffic, at times.

Ice fishing impact

The snow has definitely had an impact on ice fishing access, especially for anglers who don’t have a tracked vehicle. In North Dakota, the greatest access challenges are on waters north and east of state Highways 200 and 83, and south and east of Highways 200 and 3, said Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

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That covers a significant chunk of northeast and southeast North Dakota.

The result: A winter of haves and have-nots.

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A North Dakota lake is buried under deep snow in January 2009. Similar conditions this winter in parts of North Dakota have created ice fishing access challenges. It's a winter of haves and have-nots, in many ways; anglers with tracked vehicles can get around, but those who don't are severely limited.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

“You definitely should have tracks or snowmobiles, at least to get to the good spots and really find fish,” said Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, outdoor communicator and host of the “Jason Mitchell Outdoors” TV show. “There’s been some trails they’ve been trying to keep plowed (on Devils Lake), and there have been some people taking vehicles out in places, but it’s much more limited.”

That’s also the case in areas of western Minnesota where he has fished recently, Mitchell says.

Jason Mitchell perch.jpg
Outdoors communicator and fishing pro Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, host of the "Jason Mitchell Outdoors" TV show, admires a perch in this undated photo. Snow and slush that results from the weight of snow on the ice are becoming a problem on some lakes this winter, Mitchell says, and tracked vehicles are the best bet for getting around on lakes without plowed ice roads.
Contributed / Devils Lake Tourism

“Hard-sided fish houses might be sitting out on some of those lakes for a while,” he said. “There’s getting to be a fair amount of snow, and there’s getting to be a fair amount of slush in places. We’ve been definitely using tracks to get out.”

Slush, which results when heavy snow pushes water up through cracks in the ice or holes anglers have drilled, can be especially challenging. Hidden beneath the snow, slush problems often aren’t apparent until it’s too late; Mitchell says he can recall horror stories of “just getting buried and stuck” in slush.

“And then if you don’t have a place to thaw out your equipment, that slush freezes and it’s really hard on everything,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, breaking stuff and getting stuck. That’s probably the big thing that just makes it hard.”

It’s definitely been a challenging winter, said Dick Beardsley, a Bemidji fishing guide who has four wheelhouses he rents on Lake Bemidji.

“I couldn’t get my houses out on Bemidji until the 31st of December, but boy, since then, it’s been cold and lots and lots of snow and wind,” Beardsley said.

Dick Beardsley.jpg
Bemidji fishing guide Dick Beardsley holds a walleye he caught while fishing in the comfort of a wheelhouse in this undated photo. Beardsley, who rents four wheelhouses on Lake Bemidji, said snow is now approaching 2 feet deep on some parts of the lake and even more in drifted areas.
Contributed / Dick Beardsley

Lake Bemidji, he says, has “at least a couple feet” of snow on top of the ice, which is about 20 inches thick, with drifts that are 3 to 4 feet deep in places. Beardsley is getting around with a big four-wheel drive pickup he uses to move the rentals around the lake and shuttle people to the houses, but it can be an adventure, at times, he says.

Despite the snow and cold, rentals have been brisk, he says, especially on weekends.

“It’s been a challenge, but that’s half the fun for me,” Beardsley said. “I had a dad and his two daughters a week and a half or so ago. And they’re young, like 8 or 9 years old, and I go, ‘Kids, have you ever been to Disney World?’ They go, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Well, this isn’t Disney World, but you’re going on a ride right now that’s going to be better than any ride at Disney World.’ We started going across the lake, and I’m going pretty good because you’ve got to keep going, and the truck’s bouncing up and down, the kids are bouncing in the backseat, and they’re giggling and laughing.

“It’s all part of the winter scene, that’s for sure.”

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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