The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 1, 2014

Wintertime, and the livin' ain't easy

The Mankato Free Press

---- — To borrow a line from actor W.C. Fields, we’ve had plenty of evenings this winter when “It ain’t a fit night for man or beast.”

But at least man can come in from the cold.

The beasts are not so lucky.

This winter, we’ve had more than 30 days of sub-zero temperatures — the most since the winter of 1977-78 according to meteorologists —and there’s plenty of winter yet to come.

Nevertheless, southern Minnesota wildlife species seem to be weathering the conditions pretty well.

With notable exceptions, snow depths in much of southern Minnesota have been minimal with plenty of open areas swept clean to give wildlife easy mobility and access to food sources like waste grains.

In extreme southwest Minnesota, the snow line tapers off to nearly nothing along the Iowa border. South of a line drawn from northwest to southeast, Iowa is virtually snow-free. Similar conditions extend across South Dakota westward from Sioux Falls.

An exception to the relatively light snow conditions in farmland Minnesota is the Alexandria area, where snow depth maps show from 20-30 inches of cover.

Ken Varland, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Regional Wildlife Supervisor at New Ulm, said that winter is always a tough time for wildlife, with limited food sources and winter cover rather than cold temperatures presenting the biggest challenge to survival.

“Things may have changed in some areas with the most recent snow, but a good indicator of winter conditions is deer behavior,” he said.

“Deer definitely are grouped up but we’ve had very few calls or complaints about depredation,” he said, an indication that deer are able to forage in open fields rather than relying on food sources intended for domestic livestock — haystacks and the like.

Randy Markl, an area wildlife manager stationed at Windom said that in southwest Minnesota, pheasants have fared well.

“Our only real problem might have been the little bit of freezing rain earlier that put a thin crust of ice out making it tough for pheasants to scratch through,” he said.

However, a few timely thaws melted much of that, once again making it much easier for birds to find food.

Jeanine Borland, an area wildlife manager stationed at Owatonna, said that with as much as a foot of snow on the ground in her area, the latest blows have created some impressive drifts and clogged some of the smaller tracts of winter cover.

“Out in the open, the drifts are pretty hard, but in protected areas, the snow is still light and fluffy enough to allow wildlife to burrow in for protection against the cold,” she said.

Recently, she has seen more pheasants out in the open, foraging in fields — a good news, bad news scenario.

“They’re out there, still able to find food, but they’re also more visible and vulnerable to predators,” she said.

One bonus to the snow cover, she said, was that many of the shallow lakes that are more suitable for wildlife than for fish will benefit from the winter kill that likely will occur, purging them of problem species such as carp.

Locally, Joe Stangel, an area wildlife manager stationed at Nicollet, said that until recently, fields were open enough to make for easy foraging.

“It’s probably gotten a little tougher with the last snowfall,” he said.

He said that pheasants in particular have probably moved into heavier winter cover where they can find it — stands of conifers and thick cattail sloughs, in particular.

“Things are probably going to get a little tougher from here on out,” he said, noting that food plots are integrated into many state wildlife areas where possible to help wildlife make it through severe winters.

Turkeys, he said, seemed to be weathering the winter fine. “They’ve got these giant feet for raking through the thick snow. Pheasants just don’t have that.”

Likewise, the area deer herd seems to be in good shape.

He speculated that deer soon may begin to congregate where the easiest food sources are available, notably some WMAs on the south and north edges of Swan Lake that are planted annually with food plots.

In the event winter conditions deteriorate further, he cautioned against individuals setting out food sources.

“Feeding straight corn to deer can kill them,” he said, noting that when deer eat corn from food plots, they also browse on other food sources.

What’s more, citizens might end up with a problem.

“They might only have two deer in their yard to start with, but could wind up with 150 of their friends showing up,” he said.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at