GRAND FORKS – The 2020-2021 winter was pretty much uneventful in terms of cold, deep snow and its impact on wildlife and outdoor recreation.
This winter promises to be much more formidable on both counts.
“It gets tough with every passing day here, it seems,” said Brian Prince, wildlife management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at Devils Lake.
This is evident from the number of calls he receives from ranchers with deer depredation issues, Prince said on Monday, Jan. 24.
“It was pretty good until today,” he said. “Things started happening today – the calls started coming in. A few guys I talk to say it’s getting pretty tough for the deer now. They are starting to turn to animal feed reserves.
Sub-zero temperatures and deep snow are also starting to create challenges for deer in northwest Minnesota. Gretchen Mehmel, Red Lake Wildlife Management Area manager at Norris Camp southeast of Warroad, said the WMA as of Tuesday, Jan. 25, has already recorded 39 days with temperatures of 0 degrees Fahrenheit or colder and 22 days with 16 inches or more of snow on the ground.
This translates to a winter severity index of 61, Mehmel says, higher than the average of 42 for this time of winter, but still lower than the winters of 1995-96 and 1996-97, which set benchmarks for severity. wintery lately. .
The WSI is a measure the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources uses to tally the number of days with air temperatures of 0 degrees F or lower and at least 15 inches of snow on the ground. The WSI can increase by 2 points per day if both conditions are met; a value of 50 or less at the end of winter indicates a mild winter, and a value of 120 or more indicates a severe winter.
At that time, in 1995-96 and 1996-97, the WSI at Norris Camp was already 106 and 105, respectively, Mehmel said, and continued to rise well beyond severe levels as winter progressed. .
“Generally, a WSI above 100 is when winter gets really tough on deer,” she said.
In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department offers a few options for producers with deer depredation issues. If it’s second- or third-cut alfalfa bales, Prince says the Game and Fish Department has black plastic sheets that growers can use as a barrier.
Longer-term or chronic issues might require deer-proof fencing, Prince says, and the department offers a hayyard program that consists of a 2½-acre enclosure for producers to protect their feed supplies for the cattle.
The program’s equipment is fully funded by the ministry, which also provides cost-share assistance to growers who need help installing the fence, Prince said.
“We try to use it as often as possible for those with chronic issues,” Prince said. “It’s quite lucrative and offers the best level of protection.”
Like deer, wild turkeys can also be very dependent on winter ranching operations, he said. This is especially true in areas such as northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, which are outside of the typical wild turkey range, even though the birds are generally doing well.
So far, at least, Prince says he hasn’t received any complaints about the turkey.
“For a while we saw turkeys moving to the outskirts of towns and things like that, and we still have them in Devils Lake here too,” he said. “It’s also a tricky situation because some people feed the birds in the winter, and these turkeys definitely make their presence known. It’s almost like they have a daily routine of hitting feeders around town, and one person likes to see them, and the next person despises them.
Native wildlife like sharp-tailed grouse and ruffed grouse are well adapted to Northland winters, Prince said, and burrow into snow for cover. Pheasants, in comparison, tend to have a tougher time.
“This may be one of those years where the pheasant population that kind of built up with mild winters is going to move south again,” Prince said. “It’s just the ebb and flow of those extremes. When we have a few winters in a row that aren’t too harsh, they can certainly make progress north and east (into North Dakota), but one harsh winter, and their numbers come down south, then we’ll have to see what we have after this winter.
The abundance of snow in the area has been a boon to snowmobile and ski trails, and conditions are generally good to excellent, but cold weather has limited traffic at times.
The snow has certainly had an impact on access to ice fishing, particularly for anglers who do not have a tracked vehicle. In North Dakota, the biggest access challenges are north and east of Interstates 200 and 83, and south and east of Interstates 200 and 3, said fisheries chief Greg Power. of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.
This covers a significant portion of northeast and southeast North Dakota.
The result: a winter of haves and have-nots.
“You should definitely have trails or snowmobiles, at least to get to the right places and really find fish,” said Jason Mitchell of Devils Lake, outdoor broadcaster and host of the TV show “Jason Mitchell Outdoors.” “There have been some trails that they’ve tried to keep cleared of snow (on Devils Lake), and there have been people taking vehicles out in spots, but it’s much more limited.”
That’s also the case in areas of western Minnesota where he’s been fishing recently, Mitchell says.
“The hard-sided fish houses might be sitting on some of these lakes for a while,” he said. “It’s starting to get a good amount of snow, and it’s starting to get a good amount of slush in places. We definitely used leads to get out.
Sleet, which occurs when heavy snow pushes water through cracks in the ice or holes that fishermen have drilled, can be particularly difficult. Hidden under the snow, slush problems often aren’t apparent until it’s too late. Mitchell says he can remember horror stories of “just being buried and stuck” in the slush.
“And then if you don’t have a place to thaw your gear, that slush freezes and it’s really hard on everything,” Mitchell said. “Obviously breaking stuff and getting stuck. That’s probably the big thing that makes it difficult.
The winter has certainly been tough, said Dick Beardsley, a Bemidji fishing guide who rents four wheelhouses on Lake Bemidji.
“I couldn’t get my houses out of Bemidji until December 31, but damn it since then it’s been cold and lots and lots of snow and wind,” Beardsley said.
Lake Bemidji, he says, has “at least a few feet” of snow on top of the ice, which is about 20 inches thick, with snowdrifts 3 to 4 feet deep in places. Beardsley gets around with a big four-wheel-drive van that he uses to move rentals around the lake and ferry people to homes, but it can be an adventure at times, he says.
Despite the snow and cold, rentals have been quick, he says, especially on weekends.
“It’s been a challenge, but that’s half the fun for me,” Beardsley said. “I had a father and his two daughters about a week and a half ago. And they’re young, like 8 or 9, and I’m like, ‘Kids, have you ever been to Disney World?’ They said “No” and I said, “Well, it’s not Disney World, but you’re going to have a ride right now that’s going to be better than any ride at Disney World.” We started across the lake, and I’m pretty good because you have to keep going, and the truck is bouncing, the kids are bouncing in the back seat, and they’re giggling and giggling.
“It’s all part of the winter scene, that’s for sure.”