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Long winter taking toll on wildlife

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Old Man Winter not only has a pretty hard grip on the region, but his icy fingers seem to be curling around some of the area’s beloved wildlife.

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The cold, snowy weather isn’t just irritating to some species — it’s downright deadly.

“Some deer will likely die off from this,” said Neil Powers, Tamarac Wildlife Refuge manager, who explains how experts there track what they call a “winter severity index.”

 “For every foot of snow on the ground you get one point and for every below zero day, it’s another point,” he said. “When you get up to 80 points, you’re looking at an impact to the deer herds.  Right now we’re at 115-120.”

Powers says some deer, particularly the elderly and the young deer, won’t be able to survive this year, as their fat reserves are dwindling fast with snow covering up their food supply.

And although many residents think this weather is “for the birds,” it’s not.

“Some have seen robins trying to make it around with rotting crab apple berries from the trees, when normally they’d be able to eat insects, earthworms and larvae,” said Powers, “so they are really having a tough time of it.”

In fact, Powers says some migratory birds that came back are having such a hard time accessing food reserves that they may end up flying back south again.

“Some Canada Geese and Bald Eagles that are migrating through and nesting may end up having a hard time too because there’s a potential for some of their eggs to freeze,” said Powers, who says experts won’t know for sure until later when they can determine which active nests are missing this year’s expected eaglets.

According to Powers, wild turkeys are also struggling to find food that sit under approximately 17 inches of snow that is still currently on the ground at Tamarac.

“In Becker County, they feed a lot on acorn crops, but they’re having a hard time getting to those resources,” said Powers, “and so I can see where a group of turkeys have been because it looks like a rototiller has been through from all their scratching.”

Animals desperate to find food are also making for more frequent sightings of them as they may be driven closer to civilization to find food.

“Deer may be more inclined to wander into yards to look for birdfeeders or to eat off the trees,” said Powers, who says they’ve also had turkeys and raccoons at their headquarters doorstep.

Because hibernating animals wake up according to the length of daylight, not temperature, Powers says some of these sleepy, hungry creatures are waking up to some less than welcoming conditions.

Then there are the species that won’t necessarily suffer a population decrease from the late spring, but will have to adjust their little lives.

Turtles that would normally begin their trek from area lakes to do their nesting in the middle of May will likely delay those plans until around the middle of June. 

Powers says we’ll also be delayed in seeing spring-related species like butterflies that have the natural ability to put things off until the weather is friendlier and the food supplier more bountiful.

Winter kill of fish

Winter kill is always a concern in Minnesota, which is more common the longer ice remains on the lakes.

Dissolved oxygen under the ice becomes scarce, particularly in the shallower, productive lakes, which essentially suffocates the fish.

Minnesota DNR Fisheries Specialist Gary Huberty says they already know Shell Lake, Tilde and Wolf Lake are all experiencing winter kill, and suspects there are several others that are borderline.

Huberty says there are sportsman’s clubs doing some aerating in select areas, but can’t possibly cover it all.

He says experts know the fish are having a hard time when they see them right up against the ice, as oxygen levels are lowest the deeper you go.  Dead fish are also showing up at inlets and anglers are striking out at spots that are usually active.

“We have no idea how bad it’s going to be yet, but we’ll be throwing test nets after ice out to try to evaluate the extent of it,” said Huberty, adding that certain fish species are more likely than others to suffer from winter kill.  Those include the blue gills, the walleyes and bass.  The bullheads, northerns and fathead minnows are the last to go.

This past Monday marked the average first day of the egg take for the walleye run, which Huberty says this year will be significantly later.

“Last year we started on April 3, and it was the earliest we’ve seen it,” said Powers. “The latest we have on record is May 2, and it could be around there this year.”

The success of the walleye run is also at risk the later it goes, as Huberty says the male’s sperm becomes gummy, making it difficult for the sperm cells to break up and swim to fertilize the eggs. This means walleye reproduction could somewhat freeze up.

“Right now we’re just hoping the ice is off by opener,” said Huberty, who says that’s scheduled early this year at May 11, “it could be pretty close.”

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