Modest snowfall and minimal days of subzero temperatures are benefiting wildlife this winter, boosting the statewide outlook for deer, pheasant and — to a lesser extent — grouse.
"So far this year, winter has been very conducive to whitetail deer survival," said Adam Murkowski, big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "Deer are in a position to do well."
Still, game managers and wildlife biologists worry that there's still time for more snow to impede northern deer while late snows and too much spring rain in southern Minnesota could upset nesting and the pheasant hatch.
"It can still get bad," said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager in Tower.
Rusch said a recent example of a late-winter wallop to the northern deer herd came in mid-February 2013. That's when the landscape changed from very little snow to burdensome, deep snow that killed bucks, young deer and a fair number of does.
"We had very severe mortality," he said.
In Minnesota's pheasant range west and south of the Twin Cities, two recent winter storms placed more snow on the ground than is ideal. The wintry weather prompted some residents of Nobles County, for instance, to recently organize a friendly feeding effort with a community corn wagon.
But pheasant experts aren't seeing conditions that are overly stressful for the game birds.
"There is nothing too concerning yet," said Nicole Davros, DNR upland game project leader for the Farmland Wildlife Research Group in Madelia. "We are not seeing mass mortalities."
She said this month's Groundhog Day snowstorm increased the snow depth for large parts of southern Minnesota beyond 6 inches, making it difficult for ringnecks to forage for food. There were reports of unusually large groups of pheasants congregating together in open fields, scratching around for something to eat, she said.
And while more snow swirled Sunday across southern Minnesota, intense winds in that storm blew some fields open to the birds' benefit, Davros said. A bigger factor in their favor this winter was a balmy December.
"Up through the start of January, they had it pretty easy," she said.
Davros said starvation is not high on the list of mortality concerns for Minnesota pheasants. What they need most in winter is good habitat to protect them from the elements, including predators.
"Pheasants don't normally starve to death," she said. "Other things get them."
If the spring nesting season isn't disrupted by late snows and if the peak hatch isn't rained out in early June, Minnesota's pheasant population could rebound for a second consecutive year.
"If we can put together another generally mild winter with a good spring, we will be in good shape come the fall," Davros said. "We'll just have to wait and see what Mother Nature throws at us."
Bryan Peake, service climatologist for the Midwestern Regional Climate Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said this week's cold outbreak in Minnesota probably won't do much to reclassify the winter as anything but mild in accumulated severity. Of the nine states tracked by the climate center, Minnesota had the warmest and wettest December, he said.
The climate center has been indexing the severity of winters in the Midwest since the 1950s. The index tracks snowfall, snow depth and below-freezing temperatures. By all three measures, the winter in Minnesota has almost uniformly been mild — even in International Falls, Peake said.
While heavy snow is building up north and could easily worsen, chances for more cold outbreaks are diminishing as the sun angle sharpens and the days get longer, Peake said.
For ruffed grouse, warmer temperatures have been a refuge from poor snow cover, said Meadow Kouffeld-Hansen, upland bird biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society. The birds survive winter in part by using snow as insulation. Roosting under 8 to 10 inches of fluffy snow is ideal, but this year's snowfalls have been light and usually followed by freezing rain, Kouffeld-Hansen said.
The crusting makes it difficult for grouse to burrow into the snow and escape it for daily foraging. With milder temperatures, grouse have been able to roost in the alternate cover of conifer trees, she said.
Kouffeld-Hansen said the grouse population wasn't strong entering winter, evidenced by a low fall harvest. She said a warm, dry spring with just a little rain would help the birds rebound.
"We are at the low end of the population cycle … hoping for a turnaround," Kouffeld-Hansen said.