By Shawn Perich
State wildlife officials say northern Minnesota whitetails may be in for a tough winter. Some locations along the North Shore have already received over three feet of snow. When it gets that deep, the deer have to ‘plow’ their way through the snow, sapping precious energy and increasing their vulnerability to predators such as wolves. When it hasn’t been snowing December temperatures across the north have often been below zero—yet another climatic challenge for deer.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen a December like this one, which got me thinking about northeastern Minnesota’s brutal winter of 1995-96. Deep snow arrived early and subsequently stayed late. We had just moved into a country home with paltry insulation, draft, single-pane windows and a wood furnace for heat. We had about two cords of firewood on hand when we moved in. By January, I was out back, wading through snow over my waist and cutting down dead popples to feed the furnace.
I could go on about the trials and tribulations we faced in our new home that winter, but we were inside and relatively warm. For wildlife it was another matter. The snow kept piling up and between snowfalls the temperatures plunged far below zero. I recall back-to-back January blizzards that dumped more than 18 inches of snow. Also that month, my backyard thermometer bottomed out at minus 40 more than once.
In either January or February, I heard about a North Shore logging job where deer gathered to feed on the tops of downed birch trees. Two or three dozen whitetails hung around the harvest area, because the heavy equipment packed down the snow, creating a de facto deer yard. Then they were discovered by a pack of wolves. Every night, the wolves would run one of the deer into the deep snow beyond the site and kill it. Before long, the wolves wiped out all of the deer.
Surplus killing—taking more prey than they can eat—is something wolves may do in deep-snow years. I heard later from a biologist friend that some folks in DNR Wildlife, inexperienced with wolves and northern winters—were surprised at how much surplus killing occurred that winter. It’s unlikely many of the wolf-killed deer would have survived the winter, anyway.
I remember walking along the plowed drive leading to some Lake Superior cabins. The snow banks were higher than my head. The drive was dotted with deer tracks and you could see where they climbed the bank to reach any available browse, regardless of the tree species. Even on conifers like white spruce and balsam the branches were chewed back to stubs as thick as my thumb by the starving animals.
Starvation isn’t pretty. Along the North Shore we watched it play out daily. Soon, people began to ask why the DNR wasn’t attempting to feed the deer. DNR officials stubbornly resisted the public’s call for deer feeding, saying they couldn’t reach enough animals in the vastness of northern Minnesota to make a difference. Eventually, they relented and semi-trucks loaded with bags of feed rolled north. The feed may have made a difference in places where the deer were accessible, such as along the North Shore. I was surprised to learn one of my neighbors–a pragmatic, no-nonsense guy—was feeding the deer.
“It’s better than watching them starve in my yard,” he said.
The deep snow was even disastrous for moose. A forester friend who spent a lot of time in the woods located a number of moose that were essentially confined to small areas where they had trampled the snow so they could move around. Like the deer at the logging site, the moose were discovered by the neighborhood wolves. Unlike deer, healthy adult moose are capable of defending themselves against a predatory wolf pack. So the wolves made repeat visits to the moose, which weakened from a lack of food as the winter wore on. Eventually, they were able to make kills.
My friend took me to one of the wolf kills shortly after it occurred. The sign in the snow was easy to read. In snow that was chest-deep on me, the moose had been confined to an area perhaps 100 feet in diameter. All the trees and brush were completely browsed. With no more food available, the moose lacked the strength to move to another location. Finally having an advantage, the wolves moved in for the kill.
Wildlife officials, then smug with an abundance of northeastern Minnesota moose, said the loss of snow-bound moose was insignificant to the overall moose population. Perhaps that was true, but for several years afterward I found moose bones nearly every time I went in the woods. At the time I was serious about moose shed-antler hunting, and had a market to sell moose skulls and leg bones. I found enough of the latter to cover the gasoline expense of my frequent forest excursions.
By March, the relentless cold and snow had beaten down the most ardent winter lovers, not to mention the rest of us. On the first of May, five feet of snow still covered the ground. Along the Gunflint Trail, anglers went ice fishing on the general opener. You could still find snow and ice in shady places beneath the cedars and black spruce well into June.
Deer were so few the following November that some hunters complained the DNR should have closed the hunting season. The following winter, 96-97, was harsh statewide. Once again, the whitetail population took a hit. Hunters across northern Minnesota experienced bucks-only seasons for a couple of years afterward. But the deer came back, as they always do. Within a few years, both whitetail and wolf populations had recovered. During the early 2000s, populations of both species reached record abundance.