A winter of survival

WESTHOPE – The winter of 2012-13 will be remembered as a stubborn one that came early and refused to leave. That is particularly true north of Minot, where snow fell early and remained knee-deep or better this past week.

“I moved snow 51 times this winter. Last winter it was eight,” said Lonnie Legg, Westhope.

Legg works at the border crossing station at Antler, just a few miles from Westhope. He’s been stationed there for more than 30 years.

“We’ve got a lot of snow this year, the most we’ve had in a long time,” said Legg. “It snowed 5 inches October 25 and we’ve had snow ever since. It’s about the toughest year I’ve seen.”

According to Legg, a winter about 20 years ago was a tough one, too, but he rates the winter of 2012-13 as one of the worst in terms of its effect on deer. There have been reports from the area of snowplow drivers and farmers encountering multiple deer carcasses. The assumption is that the deer struggled for proper food during the winter months and eventually succumbed to the elements.

Deer die-offs can occur for several reasons during long winters. This year appears to be one in which the winter season lasted too long. Eventually, even strong deer that have experienced a few North Dakota winters become too weak to survive. That has been the case in the Westhope region this year.

Proof of the dilemma facing deer during a tough winter can be found at the Westhope Golf Course. Several dead deer, many with their carcasses partially eaten and torn apart by predators, can be found throughout the layout. Deer are known to frequent golf courses during winter months. Grass and trees are just too much to resist. The Westhope course is situated adjacent to the J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge, making it very attractive and accessible to deer that might not otherwise seek greener pastures.

“At the No. 3 green, they ate the grass right down to the dirt,” said Legg. “They’ve used 2 and 4 a lot and have caused some damage on No. 5. They are just starving to death.”

While deer can be seen on the Westhope course almost anytime during recent days, there’s also been a regular procession of whitetails making a trek into town. The deer, numbering up to 100 or more at times, cross fields on Westhope’s southern edge and make their way to an elevator complex to forage for spilled grain. For the deer, the chance to find some food outweighs the dangers of approaching buildings and humans.

As the temperatures continue to warm and the snowpack continues to dissipate, the deer will eventually return to feeding on exposed natural grazing and avoid areas that were critical to survival during the winter. The immediate effect of a difficult winter for deer can be seen as exposed rib cages begin to emerge from melting snow cover, but there’s longer lasting effects, too.

Does that fought a battle to survive during the winter may not produce fawns. Recovery may not be possible until 2014, but only if next winter is not a repeat of 2012-13.