What a difference a year makes.
Last April, Minnesota’s deer, pheasants, turkeys and other wildlife thrived after emerging from a mild, almost nonexistent winter. It was so warm, Leech, Vermilion and Rainy lakes were ice-free by the first week in April.
Today, anglers are still ice fishing on those lakes, deer are struggling through 20 to 30 inches of snow in parts of northern Minnesota, and pheasants, turkeys and other wildlife are recovering from a long season of snow and cold in parts of the south.
“Last winter was hardly a winter at all; this winter is much, much different,’’ said Larry Petersen, Department of Natural Resources area wildlife manager in International Falls. “It was certainly a more severe winter than average.’’
And though the calendar says it’s spring, winter isn’t over. “There’s still more than 20 inches of snow on the ground,’’ Petersen said.
The long, cold and snowy winter has hurt some wildlife but helped others:
Though wildlife biologists have yet to assess the impact to the deer population, the severe winter might have harmed whitetails in a large swath of northern Minnesota that was hammered with snow and cold, said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids.
“We will see some fawn mortality,’’ he said. And if the winter weather persists — snow was forecast this week for the Grand Rapids area — deer reproduction this spring could be affected.
“If a doe is undernourished, their fawns can be born small and weak and not fully developed,’’ he said.
Deer hunters could be affected. Fewer antlerless hunting permits could be issued in those hard-hit areas, Lightfoot said, where the DNR has been trying to increase the deer population. “Mother Nature threw us a curve,’’ he said.
With a ringneck population still rebounding from a devastating winters in 2010 and 2011, rooster boosters were hoping for a mild winter in 2012-2013. They didn’t get it. The birds got hit with snowstorms, especially in the northern pheasant range. Still, wildlife biologists are hopeful that the winter wasn’t too harsh.
“In the north, it probably wasn’t a good year for them,’’ said Nicole Davros, DNR pheasant biologist. “Birds were out on the roads looking for food, which isn’t a good sign. We found dead birds struck by cars.’’
In the Lac qui Parle area, pheasants got hit hard early with snow, but winds blew it from some fields, providing ringnecks access to food, said Curt Vacek, DNR area wildlife manager there.
“I’ve been seeing good numbers of birds along the river valley,’’ he said.
Farther south, in the Slayton area, “wildlife came through the winter just fine,’’ said Wendy Krueger, DNR area wildlife manager. “We didn’t have heavy, persistent snow.’’
Warm, dry weather during the spring nesting season is crucial to good reproduction. “If we have a good nesting season, I’m not worried about the winter,’’ Vacek said.
It was a beautiful winter for ruffed grouse, which burrow in the snow to stay warm and protect themselves from predators. They likely thrived, Petersen and Lightfoot said. Wild turkeys also likely came through the winter mostly OK, though heavy snow in some regions, including the west-central area, might have had some impact.
“I don’t think it’s been terribly bad,’’ said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager.
The long, cold winter was just what the doctor ordered at Lake Christina, where the DNR used a new $2.3 million pumping system to lower water levels last fall, hoping to winterkill carp and other rough fish in the famed 4,000-acre waterfowl lake. Those fish root up the lake bottom, causing cloudy water and poor vegetation — and no food — for waterfowl.
“We’ve gotten a real good kill,’’ said Tom Carlson, DNR waterfowl habitat specialist at Fergus Falls. He expects last fall’s turbid water to clear this spring, causing vegetation to grow and enticing waterfowl to feed at the lake next fall.
Wetlands around the state infected with carp and other rough fish might also have experienced similar winterkills, boosting water quality for ducks. But it doesn’t appear the snow has helped release the grip of drought over much of the state, including the west-central and southwest, where some wetlands were bone-dry last fall. Sixty-seven percent of the state remained in severe or extreme drought last week.