As a biologist I deal with aspects of fish and wildlife behavior on a routine basis. Hardly a week goes by that I don't get at least one phone call or email from someone who witnessed an odd, strange, or erratic animal behavior, or saw something in an unusual location.
After nearly two decades in the field, I have learned to "never say never." Even if I get a call on a pink flamingo in a storm-water retention pond, my initial response would be "could be, you just never know."
That's always a safe response without the benefit of a first-hand look. I did one time express doubt regarding a call about a kangaroo stuck in a fence. And my suspicion was confirmed when it was later determined the animal was actually a young deer attempting to kick its way loose.
This winter a few people have asked about seeing fewer deer and smaller herds of deer in areas where hunters or landowners for the last several years may have seen deer bunched up in larger groups.
As with many outdoor issues, weather, habitat and populations all tend to play a part in what is seen or not seen across the prairie.
Out of the gate, I'll explain that a lack of visible groups of deer is not necessarily a bad sign from the perspective of a biologist or a landowner. Just a short year ago the extreme cold, piles of snow and long winter created many reported deer depredation situations across North Dakota where dozens and sometimes even hundreds of deer gathered near food sources.
One reason deer aren't as visible as last year is simply that over much of the state, the landscape through late January was more brown than white. Deer just don't stand out as much as they do against a white background.
Secondly, deer can find something to eat just about anywhere this winter so they aren't nearly so congregated around isolated food sources. We may still have some large gatherings of deer in places, but for the most part those situations are more of an exception than the rule this year.
A third factor that might explain why some people are seeing fewer deer this winter is that the state likely has fewer deer. In addition to three severe winters in a row, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, through hunting pressure on antlerless deer with rifles, bows and muzzleloaders, has been trying to reduce the statewide deer population for the last five years or more.
The winters served to accelerate the population reduction. This year, the management strategy will be to try to increase deer numbers in most units. For a couple of years, and possibly more depending on weather and habitat changes, that will mean fewer licenses available than in other recent hunting seasons.
Whether it's ice fishing, predator hunting, work, family vacation or sports travel with the kids, if you're traveling across North Dakota this winter, don't be shocked if you don't see deer gathered in the same places they were the last few years.
It's understandable that people would express concern over not seeing so many deer this year, but for the most part, that's probably a good sign.
Leier is a biologist for the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org