Wildlife deserves attention in winter

DOUG LEIER ND Game and Fish Department

I stopped blaming Mother Nature for nasty weather years ago and started pointing the finger at Old Man Winter. Not that it mattered but it seemed fair, even though we have no control over the weather.

For man and beast on the prairie, a winter that begins late and ends early with a few drifts of life-sustaining moisture and short snaps of cold interspersed is as much as we can ask. Anyone who grew up here knows that we adapt to the cold and the snow – from warming up the truck, to making sure a shovel and winter survival gear are packed for every trip.

But what about the animals?

Many animals have adaptations that help them get through the winter, but in some years even those natural defenses are not a sure hedge against death.

Some have thick winter coats, and their metabolism slows down. Bears hibernate. Sharp-tailed grouse have feathers from the toes and other feathers that protect their nostrils from driven snow. Rabbits have large, fur-covered feet that help them move quickly over deep snow.

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Many bird species naturally migrate south. A few mammals can also migrate. Pronghorn will occasionally move from North Dakota to South Dakota, Wyoming or Montana in search of food that is not covered by snow. Each in other more mountainous states will move from high altitudes to wintering grounds in valleys.

The hard truth is, species that cannot acclimatize or evolve with winters no longer occupy northern latitudes. It’s just the way nature works. The smart and strong survived and the others, well, they were not so lucky.

doug leier.jpg

Doug Leier


In some winters, however, it is even a battle for the smart and the strong. And that’s where people can help.

No, I’m not talking about providing winter food for wildlife, like putting out corn for pheasants or hay for deer. What is far more effective in the long term is creating habitat that will give native wildlife some decent winter shelter. If animals don’t have to burn as much energy to stay warm, they don’t have to find as much food.

In addition to creating or preserving habitat, humans can help animals save energy by simply keeping their distance during the winter.

Many of us like to get out and enjoy what winter has to offer. We hike, ski, snowmobile, bird watch and photograph, and often do this in or near wildlife. The best we can do for any animals that may be around is to keep disturbance to a minimum.

For motorized machinery such as snowmobiles, it is important to stay on designated trails. Clearing mammals or undisturbed forests can frighten mammals and birds into the open. Not only do they need to burn energy, but they can be more accessible to predators.

Even cross-country skiers and hikers can interrupt an animal’s daily struggle for survival, but machines can move the seemingly promising encounter to another level. Usually these encounters are by chance, and the skier or snowmobiler or all-terrain vehicle driver does his or her best to move on.

In very few cases, however, the reaction is just the opposite and the snowmobile for some reason takes off and chases an animal. This is illegal, whether the intent is to kill the animal or “just to have fun.”

Chasing it with a machine not only stresses the animal, but also gives the activity involved a bad name. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department encourages anyone who witnesses such an act to report it as soon as possible to law enforcement or the Report All Poachers hotline at 701-328-9921.

Fox, coyotes, deer, pheasants, rabbits and all the other wildlife that endures our winters should receive special attention this time of year. We like to be in the woods or ride along rivers or shovel snow across the prairie, and that can mean chance encounters with wildlife. That’s a big part of the reason we go outside. The key is to enjoy the moment, and then move on.

Please take a moment and consider the reality of what animals endure in the winter and adjust your activities accordingly.

Doug Leier is a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.


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