It’s now official: This winter will be one of the nastiest on record for northern Minnesota — and deer are paying the price.
The Department of Natural Resource’s winter severity index (WSI) — used to predict winter’s impact to wildlife — is breaking records in some areas, including portions of Carlton, St. Louis and Lake counties. The index is based on the number of days the temperature was zero or below and snow depth was at least 15 inches.
The WSI now has exceeded 180 points — considered severe — in most of northern Minnesota, and some areas are breaking records set in 1995-96, one of the worst winters ever. Some deer mortality can occur with a WSI as low as 125 to 130, officials said.
Until recently most of the dead whitetails Tom Rusch has encountered were fawns.
“Now we’re seeing and getting reports of adult deer starving, too,’’ said Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager at Tower in northeastern Minnesota. “It’s disheartening.”
The WSI was 205 in Rusch’s area on Friday and climbing. “We still have 26 inches of snow,’’ he said. The old WSI record was 202 in 1996.
“We’re in uncharted territory,’’ Rusch said. Records elsewhere likely will fall, too. The WSI has exceeded 200 in areas near Bigfork, Babbitt, Cloquet, Crane Lake, Duluth, Finland, Grand Rapids, Gunflint Trail, Isabella and Two Harbors. And more snow fell Friday.
At Cloquet, the WSI was 208 on Friday, breaking the record of 190 set in 1996.
“In the last two weeks, we’re getting more calls about deer that have died or are struggling,’’ said Chris Balzer, DNR area wildlife manager.
Hunters will feel the impact this fall as the DNR restricts the issuing of antlerless deer permits to try to rebuild the herd.
“We’re expecting a more conservative deer season this fall,’’ said Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section chief. “Some areas likely will be bucks-only. Deer have had a tough go of it for four of the last six winters in the northeast.’’
This winter could rank in the top five for severity, he said.
Deer feeding extended
Meanwhile, DNR officials have agreed to spend more hunter-generated money to extend the state’s emergency deer feeding program several weeks as the winter drags on.
“It doesn’t help that we keep getting 10-inch snowfalls in April,’’ said Ed Boggess, Department of Natural Resources fish and wildlife division director. “We’re committed to providing funding until there’s no longer continuous snow cover.’’
The deer feeding program — the first state effort since 1996 — began March 6, and about 880,000 pounds of feed costing about $164,000 has been distributed, said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association (MDHA).
He, too, is getting reports of dead deer.
The deer hunters group pushed the DNR for the feeding program and is handling the distribution. The deer-feeding fund underwritten by 50 cents from every deer license sold is being tapped. DNR officials had allocated $170,000 from a $770,000 account, saying they wanted to save $600,000 for disease issues, including chronic wasting disease.
But Boggess said that once feeding begins, it should continue because deer become dependent on the feed.
Johnson said he orders feed week by week, depending on need. “We have lots of snow to get rid of before we can stop feeding,’’ he said. “If we continue feeding for a total of eight weeks, through May 2, the total cost would be about $302,000.’’
By comparison, about $1.3 million was spent on deer feeding in 1996.
About 1,000 volunteers are feeding around 16,000 deer at 1,000 sites in 13 permit areas, Johnson said. That’s a fraction of the northern deer herd, but Johnson said it’s better than doing nothing. He said the feeding “definitely’’ is having an impact and that volunteers report that deer being fed seem to be benefitting.
DNR officials oppose feeding wild deer, saying it doesn’t help deer on a population level and causes them to congregate, which could contribute to the spread of disease and make them vulnerable to predators, such as wolves.
Concern over deer populations dominated six “listening sessions’’ held recently around the state to get input from deer hunters. The sessions were at Brainerd, Cambridge, Bemidji, Morris, Nicollet and Virginia, and 45 to 90 people attended each.
The MDHA co-sponsored the gatherings, and Johnson was present at each.
“People want more deer,’’ he said. “People are skeptical the DNR has the right estimates for deer populations in their areas. They want [deer density] goals to be higher.’’
Telander said the DNR will consider the comments from participants and those made online.