MADISON -- With deep snows and cold temperatures persisting since November, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials are paying close attention to winter's impacts on the state's deer herd. They are also asking the public to report any observations of winter deer mortalities.
Wildlife managers across the state, and especially in the far north, have received several calls from concerned citizens, according to Kevin Wallenfang, state big game ecologist. "After a tough winter that had an impact on deer numbers in 2013, this certainly isn't what any of us had hoped for," he said.
According to Wallenfang, the 2012-13 winter started out fairly mild, but late, significant snows and cold temperatures occurred well into May resulting in direct losses of deer and lower than average fawn production. These factors and others combined to keep deer numbers lower than desired during the hunting season in many areas across the north.
"For the 2013 hunting season, antlerless permit numbers were set as low as we've seen them since the 1990s," Wallenfang said. "With deer numbers already low in some areas, this winter is going to slow the recovery of the northern herd."
Mike Zeckmeister, district wildlife supervisor in Spooner, says that the first question people usually ask is whether they should start feeding deer.
"It's always well-intended, but feeding can do more harm than good if done improperly," Zeckmeister said. "It's understandable that people want to try to help deer through a bad winter. So if you choose to feed, please talk to the local DNR wildlife biologist first for advice."
Zeckmeister especially emphasized that straight corn and hay are not recommended as they can be harmful. Instead, a commercialized pellet or mixes containing small quantities of corn, plus alfalfa, oats, and soybeans, as well as various vitamins and minerals is preferable from a deer health concern. It should be spread out to reduce fighting, away from roads or snowmobile trails to avoid collisions, and near sheltered areas out of the wind.
Wallenfang also offered a reminder that deer feeding is strictly regulated, and is prohibited in any county affected by CWD. In all other counties, feeding is currently limited to a maximum of 2 gallons per site, must be placed within 50 yards of a dwelling or business building open to the public, and may not be placed within 100 yards of a roadway with a posted speed limit of 45 mph or more.
Again, Zeckmeister urged potential feeders to contact the local wildlife manager to discuss various types of food and techniques that will not harm deer, and for a full explanation of additional regulations.
DNR biologists annually monitor the effects of winter weather on the deer herd using a Winter Severity Index, which uses a combination of cold temperatures and deep snows to gauge winter stress levels. In addition, they are also spending time in the woods monitoring both deer and winter habitat, as well as talking to loggers, foresters, trappers, and others who spend time in the winter woods.
The WSI measurements are recorded annually from December 1 through April 30 at 43 stations spread primarily across the northern third of the state as well as several east-central counties.
"Each day that the temperatures fall below zero degrees Fahrenheit and/or the snow depth is more than 18 inches, the conditions are noted for each station," Wallenfang explained. "For example, a day with 20 inches of snow and a temperature of five-below-zero would receive two points for the day."
Winter conditions are considered mild if the station accumulates less than 50 points, moderate if between 51 and 80 points, severe if between 81 and100, and very severe if over 100. "The index is not a perfect measurement of winter severity, but it gives us a pretty good gauge of what to expect," says Wallenfang.
Wallenfang says that several stations in the far northwestern counties have already surpassed the severe category. Farther south and east, many stations will likely hit the severe classifications later this winter.
As a result, Wallenfang anticipates either zero or extremely limited numbers of antlerless deer permits in many northern counties for the 2014 hunting season.
"Even if winter suddenly turned mild, we would still anticipate some buck only areas in 2014," Wallenfang added. "Deer numbers have declined in general across much of the north, and in some areas significantly in recent years. Low or zero quotas are an obvious step to help herds recover."
"We'll be monitoring the situation across not just the north, but the entire state through spring green-up because we did lose deer in the south last year, as well. We are asking the public to assist with monitoring and would appreciate their help in reporting any winter deer mortality they see to their local wildlife biologist," Wallenfang says.
For more information search the DNR website for "baiting and feeding regulations."
FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Kevin Wallenfang, Deer and Elk Ecologist, at 608-261-7589 or Mike Zeckmeister, Northern District Wildlife Supervisor, at 715-635-4090.