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Young Auditorium

Harsh winter could mean poor hunting

March 11, 2014 | 04:04 PM
The days are getting longer and the piles of snow lining every sidewalk are getting shorter. Finally.

The spring melt is upon us, but the snow isn't disappearing as fast as it has in the past few decades. This bitter winter hasn't changed much for people, besides a higher-than-average heating bill and a more uncomfortable walk between buildings.

But for Wisconsin wildlife, a longer winter can mean the difference between survival and starvation.

In recent decades, the state has enjoyed a spike in deer and turkey population, due in part to conservation efforts by hunters and the Department of Natural Resources.

But a string of mild winters that has softened our statewide resistance to the cold is also responsible for a boon in animal population — deer and turkey are more abundant in some parts of the state than they have ever been.

And that's because in the past 30 years, it's been warmer in Wisconsin than it's ever been.

But this year, winter blew in gusts of arctic nostalgia for Wisconsin most grizzled residents.

For some, the cold has been a positive sign, a return to normalcy in a world fraught with change.

But with all the rugged pride we associate with weathering wicked blizzards, and all the stories from back in the day 'when arctic winds blew in your face both ways uphill,' come also the conditions that made it so difficult for turkey and deer populations to thrive in this state for so long.

Kelly Zanbeek, a DNR wildlife biologist for Waukesha and Walworth Counties, said that during the most severe winters, as much as 30 percent of the deer population can be wiped out. And the main culprit isn't the cold, it's starvation.

"Right now is a pretty critical period," Zanbeek said. "The longer we drag out winter, the more time animals have to survive off their fat reserves, so right now they're reaching that low (point) in the year with their fat reserves."

With little to no vegetation for deer and turkey to munch on, the animals are forced to rely on their fat reserves, which they build up in the fall to sustain them during the winter. Longer winters stress the limits of their reserves, and as a result, many animals end up dying. Sometimes in groups.

"There's a lot of attention being drawn to this in the north," Zanbeek said. "Northern deer populations and turkey populations are harder hit than they would be down here, because we have a lot more agricultural crops in this area that could potentially help animals (feed) through the winter."

Zanbeek said turkeys have a tough time getting around to search for food in deep snow, and she said that the DNR's upland ecologist said that turkey numbers are expected to drop this spring.

"At this point, we haven't heard any reports of group die-offs," Zanbeek said.

DNR specialists keep an eye and ear out for evidence of group starvation, which could indicate larger population problems. People sometimes call in to report a group of dead turkey or deer on their property.

"If people are seeing that, we highly encourage them to report them to us so we can try to get a handle on the situation," Zanbeek said. "But it'll be interesting to see how it unfolds into the spring and then in the fall into the deer season."

Zanbeek said she's curious to see if the state records a lower-than-average fawn recruitment.

Though winter seems to be inching its way to spring, and the extra hours indoors we've endured in the past few months might have us drooling at the thought of outdoor Sports, don't get too excited, hunters. You may not see as many turkeys this spring.


Tags: Sports

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