Finding some good

Doug Leier

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This winter began in much of the state even before the opening shots of last fall's deer rifle season, and some are joking we'll still be ice fishing on Memorial Day.

While some long-range forecasts predicted a fairly hostile beginning to winter, no one could have guessed we’d have record snowfall in much of the state through the month of January

I'd suggest that most of us realize a difficult winter was bound to happen. It really was a matter of when, not if. Resident wildlife has suffered, which most people expect when we get a lot of snow.

What most people don't think about beforehand is that deep snow can restrict ice fishing. Access on many lakes this winter is limited, and travel on the snow-covered ice with anything but a snowmobile is difficult.

This frustration with ice fishing has prompted many anglers to pull ice houses off lakes while they can. It's not a bad idea, as whenever spring weather arrives, the melting snow, slush, thawing and freezing cycle will likely make for challenging conditions for ice house removal by North Dakota's deadline of March 15.

Despite the formidable blanket of white frustration so far, there are a few white flakes of hope and positive fallouts.

First, let's look at the situation of moisture in the southwestern and central regions of North Dakota. While the eastern part of the state, and in particular the southeastern corner were pretty much saturated heading into winter, much of the remainder of North Dakota was begging for moisture through summer and into last fall. Whether by snow or rain, the grasslands and wetlands will rejoice with an influx of water from the snow melt this spring.

In addition, the North Dakota's Missouri River reservoirs a double-digit rise in elevation by the end of last summer, and Lake Sakakawea went into 2009 at around 1,825 mean feet above sea level. While the unexpected rise was nice, added moisture up and down the tributaries from this winter's snow will help sustain that increase this year.

In addition, many smaller lakes and reservoirs that were suffering from low water levels and may experience some winterkill, will likely benefit from the snow in the long run. “A good snow pack may lead to a decent spring runoff event,” says Greg Power, North Dakota Game and Fish Department fisheries division chief. “If this occurs, the department will be prepared to restock any winterkill lakes, and with more water in those lakes, habitat conditions will greatly improve, which will lead to longer term sustainability of those lakes.”

The cycle on the prairie is one of wet and dry. It's been that way for centuries. Dried out wetlands temporarily appear void of much production from a wildlife or fisheries standpoint, but once the vegetative growth is flooded again, the cycle of life will be evident this coming spring.

During a winter such as this, birds and mammals do die, perhaps so many that we’ll notice a population decline come next fall. But let's remember that the first animals we'll lose are generally the sick, diseased or weak. Essentially, it's the natural phenomena of the strong surviving. The reduction in numbers is nature's way of reducing competition for remaining food and habitat, and over the course of time the population as a whole is genetically stronger than preceding generations.

And finally, even nonhunters and landowners can appreciate the benefit moisture will have on grasslands. It's not simply just for ducks and other wetland-dependent animals. The loss of CRP, coupled with drought, have reduced grassland habitat for nesting birds, cover for wildlife, and also hay and forage for livestock producers.

So while most of us, at least to some extent, are tiring of the beautiful white blanket, come summer and into next fall we will have reason to give thanks.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email:

Posted by Doug Leier under Field Journals on March 6, 09 11:05 AM | Permalink

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