Whitetail Deer: The Ugly Winter of 2015

Winter weather is always a hot topic of conversation for deer hunters, but little else has been talked about in northeastern deer-hunting circles since winter turned ugly—winter-kill ugly. Jeff Eames is the owner Fort Mountain Companies (a 17-employee timber service enterprise based in New Hampshire). At any given time he has five or so timber crews in the woods and this winter is no exception. He is also QDMA branch president with a serious passion for deer.

Eames reports that the deer in the northeast are pretty much wallowing around in chest-deep snow right now. That’s the bad news. The good news is, so are the coyotes. Eames’ major concern is if the snow crusts over.

“That’s when the coyotes can get around,” he says. “And the deer will be easy prey.”

Eames is no stranger to winter deer feeding. He and his crews feed plenty of deer each winter. There are no hay bales or bags of corn though, just a fleet of log skidders and chain saws. This winter, just shortly after a tree hits the ground, the deer have been on it. They nip off the tender buds and small diameter branch tips like they haven’t eaten in weeks. And that’s because some of them haven’t. Lucky for them, their systems are accustomed to eating browse and where there are chain saws, there's browse. Eames knows much about winter weather and winter deer, and he's more than a little concerned about what may lie ahead.

Noted whitetail expert and wildlife photographer Charlie Alsheimer manages a deer facility at his western New York farm where he cares for a dozen or so whitetails. He is with the deer each day, documenting their every move on camera. According to Charlie, his deer are in the throes of one of the severest NY winters on record and it's beginning to take it's toll.

“In winter I make sure my deer get plenty of native vegetation along with the commercial feed I give them,” says Alsheimer. “I cut browse for them all winter long. Ash, apple, maple, and poplar are all put on the ground for my deer. A straight diet of corn would be the end of them. It would take 2 weeks for them to be able to begin digesting it. A lot of damage can happen in that time with a straight corn diet.”

A recent member survey conducted by the National Deer Alliance found that roughly half of the respondents either feed deer or, given the severity of this year's winter, were considering it. That's all fine and good, but most deer biologists discourage feeding deer in winter. And for good reason.

For starters, the deer probably don’t need to be fed. Most does enter the winter season with roughly three months of fat reserves. Muscle mass is not utlilized until fat reserves are consumed. Deer eat very little in winter and can generally get by with a twig here and a bud there, with perhaps a leaf or two thrown in for good measure. In fact, according to Alsheimer, once the thermometer starts reading 15 degrees or less, deer pretty much lay up most of the day (and all night) to conserve energy. Emergency winter feeding often serves to get them out of their natural survival rhythms and exposes them unnecessarily to extreme weather conditions. So what’s a concerned hunter to do?

The best advice is to fire up the ol' chain saw and put some tree tops on the ground. Chances are the deer you're worrying about have been off natural vegetation for some months and a little handout can’t hurt. Be sure not to stress the deer you are feeding with too much activity, and spread your cutting over a broad area to avoid helping the predators.

Come summer, remember this winter’s lessons. Put away the golf clubs, take out the chain saw and loping shears, and start doing some long-term habitat work. Your hunting will improve and your deer will prosper all winter.