An Outdoorsman’s Journal – 4-2-2014

by Mark Walters

Difficult Winter for Wisconsin’s Wildlife 

Hello friends, 

This week’s column is on some facts and conditions facing Wisconsin’s wildlife that is currently dealing with an extremely difficult winter.

Back in the 90’s I lived in Ashland County near Mellen and I recently returned to visit with friends and do the field work for this column.

Monday, March 17th
High 20, low minus 6

Back in the day, two of my best friends in the Mellen area were Chuck and Caryn Rieb. We were neighbors and had lots of fun together. Today, Chuck and I would be doing a bit of exploring by snowmobile. Our guide for the day, 20-year-old Logan Nortunen,would take us on his families 160-acres that is on the Marengo River, just north of Mellen.

Logan is the son of Chip and Mike Nortunen and my idea of a quality young man. He has a strong work ethic, (seasonal employee at Xcell Energy) solid family values, and is a big time outdoorsmen.

Logan’s plan was to have all three of us drive snowmobiles from the family home, cross some fields, and then down a steep incline that is heavily wooded in sugar maple, balsam, and white cedar trees. The valley leading down to the Marengo River is a winter deer yard, and with the ideal conditions for deer trying to make it through a difficult northern forest winter. Sugar maple and white cedar are two of a whitetail deer’s favorite winter browse and balsam trees are secondary browse that offers what is needed most, a thermal area.

A thermal area is basically wind protection, which means the dense cover is warmer. In an interview with Iron County wildlife biologist, Sam Jonas, I was told that the winter severity index in Mercer on March 25th was 151. What does that mean? The WSI goes like this. Every day that the temperature goes below zero counts for a point.

Every day with over 18-inches of snow counts for another point. There is currently 34 inches of snow in Mercer and the WSI is at 151 with a chance to beat the record set back in 1996 of 179.

A WSI of 50-80 is considered moderate, 80-100 is severe and over 100, where over a 30 percent mortality rate can easily be reached, and is considered very severe (as of today the Barnes area of Bayfield County was near 170).

Today would be a wilderness adventure with no sign what-so-ever of humans, and lots of deer trails crossing the Marengo, and deer spotted in the balsams and cedar trees on the side of the river.

When a winter like this hits the north, the first deer to perish are mature bucks, as they give up most of their body fat during the rut. Next, is the fawns who are simply too small to break through deep snow for 150-days.

While the three of us were walking through somewhat difficult terrain, we came upon what appeared to be a 2-year-old buck that was about done in. The deer could walk, but showed very little sign of fear, and had no problem letting us get within 20-feet of it.

What do deer really eat in the winter in forested country? Last years growth on aspen and maple trees are a staple. Two-year-old growth is a second choice, and when you see woody browse being eaten (3 years older or more) you know that animal is in trouble, as there is next to no nutritional value in it, and it is very hard on their teeth. That my friend’s is another reason why clear cuts create habitat and a smorgasbord for deer, grouse, and inevitably predators that follow them.

Another important fact that most people are not aware, most whitetail mortality that is caused by winter stress is actually in late March, and early April. This is due to the animals run down conditions, caused by well over four months of living in intense stress of deep snow and extreme cold.

Here is an interesting situation facing Wisconsin’s turkeys. I have personally been told, on five separate occasions, (including Logan) of people finding 3-12 dead turkey under what appeared to be a roosting tree. Here is the scoop on that. When turkeys are losing all their body fat and there is very deep snow, they will sit in a roosting tree for up to two weeks and will simply fall out of the tree and die.

Today, I became friends with Logan Nortunen, and because of past experiences and some interviews, I have learned more about Wisconsin’s wildlife, and I returned to a really cool part of Wisconsin that in one way or another I will always call home.