Deer Herds Strong at Midseason
With warmer-than-average temperatures and little snow cover to impede their travel and foraging, North Dakota’s deer herds are doing well, according to Jason Smith, Big Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department (NDG&F). Last year’s conditions, particularly in the southeastern corner of the state and the region surrounding Smith’s Jamestown office, were much colder and quite snowy in comparison to the rest of the Peace Garden State, inhibiting movement and feeding and impacting survival of deer over the winter of 2019-20. Of the four corners of the state, the units in the southeast received the most limited amounts of increases in firearm deer tags for hunters in the fall of 2020, the end result of those challenging conditions.
“By all accounts it appears that wildlife in general are doing well, especially deer,” Smith states of conditions headed into the back half of winter, “obviously it’s quite the contrast from last year, then again, with all things considered we have to realize that we are still on the northern great plains and anything can happen, so I guess I remain cautiously optimistic,” he concluded. The limited cold conditions bode well not only for deer surviving the winter, but also for reproduction and recruitment of more fawns in the spring. While not the only factor which helps increase the population, which has been slowly climbing since the difficult winters of 2010 and 2011, mild conditions when coupled with other items can help with more successful fawning and recruitment in spring.
“If you tie it to the interactions between what’s available for habitat, quality of forage on the landscape and also deer density, the number of fawns are determined in the breeding season in the previous fall and that’s relative to the body condition and age of that adult female,” Smith explains, adding, “probably more than anything, the number of fawns on the landscape in spring is a good index, but the main driver for the population is recruitment, or that number of fawns that make it to adulthood and then to the breeding population.”
One of the limited drawbacks to the mild winter conditions is the lack of snow necessary for NDG&F personnel to conduct their aerial surveys of whitetail deer populations. Especially in woody riparian areas and those places where deer normally herd up, the agency requires a foot of snow on the ground to help cover the natural brown of harvested fields, grasslands and tree claims, and make deer stand out for easy identification against the white background. With more than three-quarters of the state having less than an inch on the ground and more than 90 percent under the required 12-inch level, standardized surveys can’t be run, and other methods – such as utilizing hunter reports from last fall, and anecdotal observations by biologists – will have to be used to gain a greater picture of deer herd size in the region.
While the easier winter means more movement options to evade predators, the conditons likely don’t have much impact on the predator-prey relationship as coyotes focus on the weaker members of the herd. That trend doesn’t change a whole lot from season to season, unless the winter is severe and more deer die off from exposure. Instead, it’s business as usual as the opportunistic predators find some deer to be culled.
“Predation for the most part is relative to the number of predators out there,” Smith states, suggesting a stable number of coyotes on the landscape, “I’m sure we still lose a number of deer to coyotes during the winter, but a lot of that is probably them picking off animals that have been wounded during the prior hunting season, especially rut-related injuries for males, old age, and so on,” he concludes.
By: Nick Simonson