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- Prostaff Member Doug Leier
As snowstorm after snowstorm this winter have dumped inches and feet of white blankets across the prairie, waves of concern have built up to match the drifts in my back yard. Family and friends worry about traveling and over-the-road drivers endure ice and other substandard travel conditions.
Suffice it to say that most would prefer a little less snow and warmer temperatures --wildlife included.
To find fun in a snowy cold winter, one needs to look at ice fishing, predator hunting, snowshoeing and other winter activities. But even after a few hours of snowshoeing, my mind is drifts toward summers spent on the fishing pier catching bluegills with the kids.
Even for a lifelong North Dakota resident, winters like this aren't easy. And after our own safety and peace of mind are considered, questions pop up about winter and wildlife. It's a natural progression of concern, wondering how the creatures that share winter will fare?
In short, for most animals winter is about survival. The strong will survive and the weak ... may not. I’ve often explained that nature is sometimes not rated “G.” Some animals eat other animals and at times other animals do not find enough to eat and slowly succumb to the elements. It's a scene played out across the badlands and plains, where it's survival of the fittest and not every story will have a happy ending.
In a winter like this, reports about deer and pheasants capture the most interest, but the winter marathon is all-inclusive, from rabbits and coyotes to pronghorn and grouse. I’m like most people in that I’d like to see animals survive, but I understand it doesn't always work that way, and mortality from starvation and disease occurs even in the mildest of winters.
I field many questions from people who wonder what can be done to help wildlife survive a cold and snowy winter. In actuality, the basic needs of wildlife remain constant through all seasons. Food and shelter are always important.
Establishing suitable winter cover takes a long time. As such, many well wishers assume that feeding wildlife is a relatively easy means of helping out. At first glance it may seem beneficial, but while food is a necessity, putting out a bale or dumping corn isn't advised.
While struggling animals are visible reminders of winter's influence, deep snow and cold can also make life difficult for fish under the ice in some waters. While we don't have to worry about winterkill in big lakes such as Devils Lake or Lake Sakakawea, low dissolved oxygen levels is a recurring problem in winters with deep snow.
Snow that accumulates on ice prevents sunlight from reaching aquatic plant. If the plants are not absorbing sunlight and producing oxygen, the oxygen content in the water can fall to the point where fish can no longer survive.
Two years ago, with record or near-record amounts of snow across the state, about 40 North Dakota lakes suffered at least some winterkill. With similar conditions this year, fisheries managers are already concerned.
It's too early to tell what lakes might have the greatest potential for winterkill, and even if we could identify which ones were likely to have the most trouble, there's not much that we could do.
The silver lining, of course, is that deep snow means additional water added to lakes in spring, which in the long run is good for future fisheries potential. And at this juncture of winter, an upside, even if it's down the road a ways, is a good thing to think about.
Leier is a biologist with the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email:firstname.lastname@example.org