Effects looming from long winter

What turned out to be a lengthy winter will, in all likelihood, have an adverse effect on fish and wildlife in several areas of the state. The state’s deer herd, particularly in a few areas in the northern range of the state, appeared to have made it through the winter in reasonably good shape. Then a late storm dumped 12-20 inches of snow that blanketed previously open feeding areas. It caused problems for wildlife, the most visible of which are deer.

Clearly, a number of deer were in trouble. Reports were received here of deer that were seen stumbling in the snow, many in emaciated condition. Some callers said that deer were simply lying in ditches, too weak to get up and move when a vehicle approached.

Had the big snow not fallen about the time deer seemed to have made it through the winter, the situation could have been much different. However, in those areas where deer were marginally making it through the winter the snowfall proved to be too much. The deer were too weak from the long winter to paw and dig for food. The result is that many didn’t make it.

Fortunately, a deer die-off in one area of the state doesn’t make it a statewide problem. It does point out how difficult life can be outdoors in a North Dakota winter, even for animals that have coped with such elements for generations. Long winters, harsh winters, are brutal for wildlife.

While the death of deer is often quite visible, there’s another problem looming that is far less visible – at least for now. The snow that denied deer access to feed also dumped a deep coating on many lakes, some of which were known to have a limited supply of dissolved oxygen. The snow shielded the sun’s rays from reaching through the ice to plants that produce oxygen. If those plants die, which often occurs when sunlight is limited, they consume the life-giving oxygen needed for fish to survive. Winter-kills are the usual result.

Fisheries biologists say they are concerned about the adverse effects of the big snowfall that occurred earlier this month because it generally covered entire lakes, many of which had at least some areas of ice that were free, or nearly free, of snow cover. Lakes that were poised to begin growing underwater plants were suddenly plunged back into darkness. The results may not be good.

Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief, has warned that this year has the potential to produce fish kills on more lakes than usual. The total effect of two or more weeks of snow cover added to the long winter season won’t become known until the ice breaks up and the open water season begins. Hopefully, any fish die-off will be minimal and anglers will be able to fish the lake of their choosing in the months ahead.