DOUG LEIER ND Game and Fish Department
Luckily, winter didn’t really start until December. Living in North Dakota, we have felt winter starting in October some years and creeping into what should be spring.
The later the winter starts and the earlier it comes out, the better it is for the resident wildlife.
So far, this version of North Dakota winter has been benign if you’re a deer, pheasant, or other resident wildlife trying to survive one day at a time until spring. But add another blizzard or two, and a week of sub-zero temperatures, and people will get more worried.
That’s when the calls to help wildlife will start coming in.
Feeding wildlife, especially during winter in North Dakota, was once a common practice adopted by most wildlife professionals. It made sense for biologists, hunters, and citizens to place food such as grain or hay in a snowy, freezing environment where pheasants and deer could easily access it.
But over the past decades, this philosophy has gradually evolved.
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The variables and elements to sustain wildlife through a Midwestern winter haven’t changed. Food, water, shelter, and space — the four elements of good habitat — are all needed to varying degrees, depending on the species and climatic conditions.
Historically, for humans who wanted what they considered best for wildlife, food and water were more easily provided, while cover and space were more time-consuming and expensive, and therefore not considered easy or economical to put into practice. In fact, years ago many people thought that simply providing extra winter food would make up for the general lack of adequate winter cover and space.
Although food is important, without adequate winter cover, pheasants can freeze to death even with a full harvest. The same can happen to songbirds. Death from exposure to snow and cold is much more common than death from starvation.
We’ve all seen deer congregating around feeders or alfalfa bales and figured they might hold out until the spring thaw. But what you don’t see if you don’t watch all the time is that when deer are removed from suitable cover and concentrated around an artificial food source, the natural pecking order retains needed nutrients. to young people of the year. , which can lead to increased mortality.
One of my favorite examples takes place every winter when I get calls from concerned people who have a great horned owl hiding near a bird feeder. The predatory bird realizes that the feeder provides a gathering point for small birds.
This is an excellent example of a well-intentioned practice that can harm the animals for which it was designed, and it helps to sum up the developing theory about feeding: it can be good for an individual or a few animals, but that’s not the case. contribute significantly to the overall health of a species.
The bottom line, after years of review and research, is that natural food sources, with appropriate winter cover nearby, are best for sustainable wildlife management. The state Department of Game and Fish follows this philosophy and has phased out artificial feeders in its wildlife management areas.
While artificially feeding wildlife can help us feel better and can do good in the short term, the long term solution requires more and better habitat to maintain or grow a wildlife population.
Doug Leier is a biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.