Doug Leier: For wildlife, winter can be a fight for survival – Grand Forks Herald


Doug Leier is an outreach biologist with the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish. Contact him at

WEST FARGO – Years ago I stopped blaming Mother Nature for nasty weather and started pointing fingers at Old Man Winter. Not that it mattered, but it seemed fair, even though we have no control over the weather.

For man and beast on the prairie, a winter that starts late and ends early with a few drops of vital moisture and brief cold snaps mixed in is all we can ask for. Anyone who has grown up around here knows that we adapt to cold and snow. From warming up the truck a bit to making sure you have a shovel and winter survival gear packed for every trip.

But what about the bugs?

Many animals have adaptations that help them get through the winter, but in some years, even those natural defenses are not sure protection against death.

Some have thick winter coats and their metabolism slows down. Bears hibernate. The sharp-tailed grouse has feathers down to its toes and other feathers that protect its nostrils from snow. Rabbits have large, fur-covered feet that help them move quickly in deep snow.

Many bird species, of course, migrate south. Some mammals can also migrate. Pronghorn will occasionally move from North Dakota to South Dakota, Wyoming, or Montana in search of food that is not covered by snow. Elk in other, more mountainous states will move from high elevations to wintering grounds in valleys.

The hard truth is that species unable to acclimatize or evolve with the winters no longer occupy northern latitudes. This is how nature works. The smart and strong ones survived, and the rest, well…were not so lucky.

In some winters, however, it is even a struggle for the smart and strong. And that’s where humans can help.

No, I’m not talking about providing winter food for wildlife, like pulling corn for pheasants or hay for deer. What is much more effective in the long run is establishing habitat that provides native wildlife with decent winter shelter. If animals don’t need to burn as much energy to stay warm, they don’t need to find as much food either.

In addition to creating or preserving habitat, people can help animals conserve energy simply by keeping their distance during the winter.

Many of us like to get out and enjoy what winter has to offer. We hike, ski, snowmobile, bird watch, and photograph, and often do this in or near wildlife habitat. The best thing we can do for any animal that may be nearby is to keep disturbance to a minimum.

For motorized machines, such as snowmobiles, it is important to stay on designated trails. Cutting through reed swamps or virgin forests can scare off outdoor mammals and birds. Not only do they have to burn energy unnecessarily, but they can also be more accessible to predators.

Even cross-country skiers and hikers can disrupt an animal’s daily fight for survival, but machines can take the seemingly casual encounter to another level. More often than not, these encounters are coincidental, with skiers, snowmobiles, or ATV drivers doing their best to keep going.

In very few cases, however, the reaction is just the opposite and the snowmobile, for whatever reason, takes off and chases an animal. This is illegal, whether the intent is to kill the animal or “just have fun.”

Hunting with a machine not only stresses the animal, but also gives the activity involved a bad name. The North Dakota Department of Fish and Game encourages anyone who witnesses such action to report it as soon as possible to law enforcement or the Report All Poachers hotline at (701) 328-9921.

Foxes, coyotes, deer, pheasants, rabbits, and all other wildlife that endure our winters should be given special consideration during this time of year. We like to be in the woods or horseback riding along rivers or snowshoeing across the prairie, and that can mean incidental encounters with wildlife. That’s a big part of the reason we dated. The key is to enjoy the moment and then move on.

Take a moment and consider the reality of what creatures endure during the winter and adjust your activities accordingly.

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