Matters turn deadly when there's 30 inches of snow between wildlife and food, and that's the state of things in southwestern Minnesota.
Scott Rall stepped into snow up to his left knee, picked up his right leg and struggled ahead alongside a county road not far from this southwestern Minnesota town. This was Thursday, and Rall, along with pal Les Johnson, was cruising the flatlands, assessing threats to wildlife posed by deep, crusted and windblown snow.
More than 2 feet of the stuff has fallen near Worthington since a Christmas storm unleashed a regionwide maelstrom, replete with low temperatures unfit for man or beast.
It's the beasts that concern Rall and Johnson.
"What I'm worried about is that if we don't get a January thaw, or an early spring, the damage to wildlife, pheasants in particular, could be devastating,'' Johnson said.
Since ring-necked pheasants were introduced to Minnesota early last century, killer winters have at times nearly wiped out these otherwise hearty birds in certain parts of the state, requiring years for their populations to rebuild.
Perhaps no Minnesotans fret more about such prospects than Rall and Johnson, who between them have nearly a half-century of conservation volunteerism to their credit in Nobles County, where Rall is president of the local Pheasants Forever chapter and Johnson vice president.
Since its inception 25 years ago, Nobles County Pheasants Forever has spent a remarkable $2.5 million acquiring and developing habitat on about 6,000 acres. The chapter, in fact, completed Pheasants Forever's first land acquisition, in 1986.
The payoff has been huge, Rall and Johnson say -- not only in self-satisfaction for the work their chapter has completed but in the number of pheasants that populate the region.
"In the last five years, there's been no reason to travel to South Dakota to hunt pheasants,'' Rall said. "The hunting has been just as good around here as it has been out there.''
Whether that will be true this fall is uncertain. About midday Thursday, pheasants often could be spotted in Nobles County fields, scratching for tidbits in snow that in places is drifted 4 feet deep, and more.
Nearly all southwest Minnesota cattail sloughs are blown shut, as are many food plots established for pheasants and other wildlife by Nobles County Pheasants Forever.
Already some ringnecks have been lost to the weather, perishing in the Christmas blizzard that bruised wide swaths of the state.
Pheasants often turn into the wind in their last wintery moments, hoping to keep a storm's frigid gusts from penetrating their feathering. When they do, moisture that naturally forms around their beaks can turn to ice, suffocating them.
"We've lost some birds, but how many, we don't know,'' said Wendy Krueger, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager stationed in Slayton, Minn.
Krueger oversees four southwestern Minnesota counties, Nobles, Murray, Pipestone and Rock.
The deep snow, Krueger said, not only makes waste grain and other food difficult to find for pheasants, it causes the birds to expend much-needed energy reserves as they travel beyond their home ranges to find sustenance.
These treacherous sojourns often expose the birds to predators, both aerial and land-borne.
"Coyotes can be a problem for pheasants, and we've got some foxes around, too,'' Krueger said. "Hawks and owls also kill pheasants.''
Deer also are facing difficulties this winter in the southwest. When snow is deep and crusted, they often congregate in large herds near food and cover, which in Nobles County are limited.
Hereabouts, more than 90 percent of wetlands have been drained and shelterbelts, fence lines and even many farm groves eliminated to make room for farmers' corn and soybeans.
Thursday, a short drive from Worthington, Rall, Johnson and I saw a nervous gathering of more than 50 whitetails in a beaten-down, harvested cornfield. Traveling along well-worn snow paths to avoid tromping through drifts, the animals were competing for food that might -- or might not -- sustain all of them until spring.
"Deer are going to fare better than pheasants,'' Krueger said. "We have found some dead fawns and have had reports of others. But around here, with no predators to worry about, most deer likely will get through the winter.''
Iowa lies only a short distance south of Worthington and provides a good example of the dangers that can befall pheasants in bad weather. Traditionally a ringneck hotbed, Iowa's pheasant harvest last year fell behind Minnesota's, something unimaginable a decade ago.
A broad-based loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres in Iowa, together with severe wintertime ice- and snowstorms, and wet springs, have devastated Hawkeye State pheasants.
Rall and Johnson say habitat development and acquisition accomplished in the past 25 years in Nobles County will reduce -- though not eliminate -- the likelihood of a similar decline near their homes.
"Winters like these,'' Johnson said, "show how important habitat areas are, and state wildlife management areas are, around here. If we didn't have them, what would pheasants do in winter?''
Scott Roemhildt, southern Minnesota Pheasants Forever regional field representative, said Friday many of his group's chapters are feeding pheasants, hoping to pull them through until warm weather arrives.
"Feeding can be effective, if done correctly,'' Roemhildt said. "But if it's not done correctly, it can do more harm than good.''
While pheasants are commonly seen alongside roads, feeding or looking for grit, spreading corn in these areas can expose them to predators, while also causing the birds to expend too much energy, Roemildt said.
"The feed should be placed near good winter cover,'' such as shelterbelts and woodlots, he said. "That way, pheasants only have to travel a short distance to get the food. And once feeding is begun, it needs to continue or the birds will be stressed when the food runs out.''
Krueger said even the relatively moderate temperatures that have prevailed in recent days can help pheasants and deer survive by exposing hilltops and the waste crops that can be found on them.
Deer often find these areas first and break the snow and frozen soil with their hooves. Pheasants follow.
Come sundown, the birds retreat to farm groves or whatever cover they can find to stay warm while avoiding predators.
In the morning, their survival quest beings anew.
Intuitively, they know that each day they must consume more energy in the form of food than they expend to find it.
Or they will die.
Dennis Anderson • email@example.com
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