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March 27, 2009
North Dakota Game and Fish wardens started hearing of dozens of whitetail deer stranded in wheat fields around the tiny town of Zahl in late January. The western prairies had been shellacked by one winter storm after the other, with snow drifted 6 to 8 feet deep in places and wind chills in the -50 degree range. Then, on Feb. 10, western North Dakota was blasted by more than a foot of snow pushed by winds that whipped to 50mph. The deer started tipping over.
Game wardens collected dozens of deer from the fields around Zahl, loaded them in trailers and hauled them back to the regional office in Williston. "It looked like they were emaciated and starved to death on their feet," said a Game and Fish biologist. "But we had to rule out poisoned grain or some other cause of death." The carcasses were necropsied by a state veterinarian, who determined that the deer had indeed starved to death, unable to paw through the heavy snow cover to replace calories robbed by the intense cold. "There was just no fat left on them," said the biologist.
"Generally we don't lose whole herds of deer to winterkill," said the biologist. "We generally see the effects of a hard winter the following spring, with the loss of the fawn crop. This gives you an idea of the winter we've been having." The winter didn't discriminate. Mature bucks, yearlings and mature does all died en masse, often after listlessly standing in the wheat fields for days.
Whitetail deer have been expanding their range in western North Dakota over the past decade, thriving in the dense cover provided by large expanses of CRP land in the area. Mule deer also occupy western North Dakota, but in the winter, muleys tend to head to rolling, hilly country buffeted by winds that clear snow off the slopes so they can feed.
This winter probably set the whitetail expansion back several years in many places of the state.
Think you had it tough this winter? Think again. Yes, those trailers are full of dead deer.
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