This week's break from the winter of deep snow and sustained below-zero temperatures might be the break many deer need if they are to make it to spring. No doubt the winter has already taken its toll on some small fawns and injured deer or older whitetails. But wildlife officials are saying they're seeing and hearing of few dead deer, though the winter severity index used by the Department of Natural Resources to measure winter cold and snow on deer has reached the very severe category across much of northern Wisconsin. "I had the same question, 'Are deer dying because of the hard winter?' So we went down Hwy. 70 (west of Spooner) and picked up five road-killed deer last week," said Mike Zeckmeister, Northern Region manager with the DNR at the Spooner office. Zeckmeister and his fellow workers did full necropsies on the five deer, including one adult buck, two adult does and two fawns. "One of the fawns was real small. It went into the winter small," said Zeckmeister. "Its bone marrow did not look good. It was probably starving and would have died from starvation if not hit by a car." The other fawn and the three adult deer, however, had bone marrow with fat. "The marrow looked and felt pretty good," said Zeckmeister, indicating the deer were not starving. The DNR is asking for and following up on any reports of dead deer being found. Zeckmeister said one report turned up a deer that died from injuries, not starvation. Another deer reported dead, a fawn, looked in good shape. "When we opened it up we found its stomach full of corn. It was being fed and couldn't handle a big shift in diet," said Zeckmeister. That fawn shows the problem with feeding deer, which is also illegal in the counties of Barron, Washburn, Polk and Burnett because of the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a deer near Shell Lake 2 years ago. Even where feeding is legal, there are feeding regulations, and the DNR encourages people to not feed deer anything other than their normal winter fare, which is mostly browse of twigs and buds. A deer supplement is recommended for any deer feeding, and a winter deer feeding fact sheet is available on the DNR website. Deer are, for the most part, moving along established deer trails, snowmobile trails and even roads as they seek food. Some are finding waste in crop fields, while others are moving to where there have been winter timber sales to find browse. "They're eating any tops, any buds they can find. They're eating it as fast as we can put it down," said Justin Kreier of the Canton-based Kreier Forest Products. Kreier recently moved into a job site a couple of miles east of Canton in eastern Barron County. "When we got there about four or five deer were hanging around. Now it's up to 25 to 30 deer," said Kreier. While Kreier said he hasn't noticed the deer being in tough shape, he noted, "They're very hungry, because they're eating only 30 yards away from us." Local DNR wildlife biologist Kevin Morgan said that some timber sales in winter are designed to provide browse for deer. "When the trees are cut it gets the natural food source closer to their reach. Deer will gravitate to that sale, and the logging equipment beats down the snow for them," said Morgan. Morgan said that deer are in what he now calls "winter concentration areas," where they are close to food. Those areas in the farmland differ from the large, classic deer yards of the big woods and river valleys of northern Wisconsin. Morgan noted that deer have "amazing resilience," and he holds out hope that most will survive this harsh winter if not hit by a cold, snowy spring. "Deer were doing good until the last snowstorm. That covered up a lot of trails," said Morgan, who went on to note that deer are now being seen more along roadways as they look for grass exposed during the recent melt. The outlook for turkeys, even if winter ends now, is not as bright. In this area the ground feeders are at the northern fringe of their habitat. "We are beyond the range of normal turkey distribution. If there is a bad winter the population is going to shrink," said Zeckmeister. "I don't think all the turkeys are going to die. But we've picked up some dead turkeys, opened them up and found they are definitely starving," Zeckmeister. Zeckmeister noted that people have told him that they are seeing fewer turkeys in their yards and fields than at the beginning of winter. On the bear front, as winter begins to break, Zeckmeister said that bears will be coming out of hibernation; some already have. "People might be quick to take their bird feeders down or they might meet up with a bear some night. There's not a lot of food out there, and bears will be hungry."
Deer meeting in Burnett County Deer hunting and management information meetings will not be held in all counties this spring, as in the past. Instead, 45 minutes of the DNR spring rules hearing Monday, April 14, will be devoted to deer information and concerns. One county meeting is planned, that in Burnett County at Grantsburg on Thursday, March 27, starting at 7 p.m. in the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area visitor center.