Wisconsin’s deer herd is suffering physically as persistent, record threatening cold and snow has made this an emotionally challenging winter.
Temperatures plunged in early November and continued into mid-February. Numerous snowfalls, many of a nuisance variety, are adding up to above normal levels.
There was not the usual – eagerly anticipated – January thaw that magically boosts spirits, making winter bearable. Temperatures have been adding up, if you can call repeated sub-zero lows and highs adding – averaging 21 degrees cooler than last winter, over 65 days ending Jan. 21. Green Bay recorded 43 sub-zero days this winter.
The harsh winter could have a huge impact on deer, said Kevin Wallenfang, a big game specialist, in a state Department of Natural Resources release.
“A year like this, where we started in November, their fat reserves were being taxed very early in the year. We’ve had very cold temperatures, very deep snow – all of the things that can hurt them,” Wallenfang said.
“Antlerless deer permits in 2013 were as low as we’ve seen since the 1990s,” Wallenfang said. “With deer numbers already low in some areas, this winter is going to slow the recovery of the northern herd.”
Two deer spent nearly two hours in view, while writing last week’s column, making cabin fever trivial. The deer were thin and had a shaggy coat, signs of stress. Besides their appearance, they displayed unusual behavior.
Deer are grazers that nibble as they eat on the move. This day, however, they were gorging on needles off a 25-foot pine tree – in what once was a fifty tree orchard overgrown by self-seeding pines and oaks.
Pine needles must be like eating shredded wheat without milk.
Observations by visitors to the End Stool witnessed similar activity.
Deer are feeding on fallen trees from a tornado that hit the area last summer, Tom Handschke said.
Wayne Wilfuer saw a field north of Iola rooted up as deer had been digging for turnips, one of their favorite delicacies.
Waupaca and Portage County are under a state order to not feed or bait deer, because of a chronic wasting disease (CWD) infected buck killed Nov. 2 on a hunting preserve in Marathon County. CWD is a transmissible disease affecting deer that leads to chronic weight loss and death.
The ban is upsetting many End Stool visitors – who question the CWD order over concern for struggling deer and location of the dead deer.
The state Agriculture Department reported (Feb. 11) that over five years tracing 81 deer to farms in Wisconsin and seven other states from a breeding farm in Portage County connected to the CWD infected deer in Marathon County.
A deer taken in the wild in Portage County west of Waupaca a few years ago was diagnosed with CWD.
Deer eat varieties of food, commonly eating legumes and foraging on other plants, including shoots, leaves and grasses. They also eat acorns, fruit and corn.
“It is not a good idea to feed deer at this time anyway,” said Jim Binder, a game management graduate of UW-Stevens Point.
“Deer have adapted to eating hard to digest forage and would struggle to digest food not on their diet,” Binder said. “Deer can adapt to most foods including buds and needles of most conifers. Red pine, however, is a danger because the needles are sharper and stiffer than other pines and can penetrate bowels and are hard to digest.”
It is a ruminant, which means deer have a four-chambered stomach. Each chamber has a different and specific function that allows the deer to quickly eat a variety of different food, digesting it at a later time in a safe area.
The stomach hosts a complex set of bacteria that change as the deer’s diet varies through the season. If the bacteria necessary for digestion of a particular food are absent it will not be digested.
It is why deer can die with their stomach full.