As I write this, western New York is cleaning up from yet another winter storm. My whitetails may be in trouble. I’m not sure they can take another hit this late in the season.
We began to sound winter deer alerts more than a month ago as the winter weather continued to intensify and spring seemed but a distant fantasy. Sadly, not much has changed since then. Most mature does entered winter with a 90-day supply of fat reserves, but those reserves are running dangerously low. It may be the middle of March, but the thermometer is still saying winter. Most Northern areas are well into what the Winter Severity Index (WSI) refers to as “severe” to “very severe” winter conditions.
So, is it too late to help out your deer? We’ve recommended cutting trees to lay tops on the ground for hungry deer for over a month now. This can still help a great deal. We cautioned about putting out unfamiliar foods like corn, apples, barn hay and even bread for hungry deer. This only accelerates the starvation process as they can not digest foods their bodies have not encountered for months. Obviously, what we really need here are some warm temperatures to thaw and expose some food. We are almost down to the wire in most areas. The next few weeks will tell the tale.
So what does it mean to hunters? For starters, it means that this spring you need to be hunting for more than turkeys and sheds. You need to scour your area looking for signs of winterkilled deer–not whole bodies preserved intact; but body parts strewn about in bits and pieces. They can often be found in sheltered areas where some hapless whitetail last bedded out of the wind. Or in some thermal cover that was a few degrees warmer than open spaces. What you are looking for is volume. A few dead deer on a hundred acres or so is perfectly normal; a half dozen or so–not so much. Keep a sharp eye out on fawn production and recruitment as well.
Most important of all is the decision we will all be faced with next fall when hunting season opens. We should all ask ourselves how many does we can harvest without damaging herd-reproduction dynamics. State agencies are notorious for late responses to changes in deer densities. By the time they figure out that your deer numbers are down, it may be too late to do anything about it. Just because the state gave you a doe tag, it doesn’t mean you have to use it. Hunters and landowners who pay attention to population numbers and know a little bit about population dynamics can well decide harvest quotas on the property they hunt and manage.
No, the sky is not falling, but it is darn near falling in some whitetail habitats. It’s nothing that a little sun and 60-degree temperatures won’t fix. But we’re not holding our breath.