Deer and Winter
Winter can be a tough time for mule deer and the areas they inhabit. While a mule deer’s summer range can be expansive, in the winter herds will congregate into areas one percent the size of their summer range. This creates crowding and competition for limited resources, which stress the deer and make them weak. Furthermore, as the snow deepens, the deer are more susceptible to predators. This situation is also very hard on the vegetation in these areas as plants are often eaten beyond what they can recover from, sometimes causing damage to the environment which can last for years.
These are the types of things that wildlife management attempts to address, and control of the size of the deer herds is where hunters come into the picture. I remember one spring not long after I moved to Colorado I was hiking in a fairly remote drainage on my way to fish a stream that held cutthroat trout. I came across a small meadow that was littered with deer carcasses, I counted 12. It was a sight I will never forget, and from that moment on I never had a problem defending why I hunt animals.
But mule deer are still quite a hardy animal and can survive in conditions that will surprise you. In fact it is not the cold temperatures which cause the deer to migrate, but rather it is the depth of the snow that causes the deer to seek lower elevations in major drainages, wintering on benches and slopes where the wind sweeps snow off of forage. It is actually quite incredible how deer can understand the effects of wind, topography, snow, and how different types of vegetation will create a more suitable place to spend the winter. Taller brush will create wind breaks that cause the snow to pile up on the leeward side, while not accumulating as much at the base of the plants themselves, leaving more area for forage to be exposed.
The direction a slope faces also has different effects to the conditions on the ground. For example, a north facing conifer slope may not get the sunshine a south facing slope does, but that also means the snow in the canopy of tree
limbs doesn’t melt, which actually seals in warmer air below the canopy. Also, on north facing slopes the ground snow does not melt in the sun then ice over at night like it does on the south facing slopes. This is called crusting, and after repeated days of this happening, the snow can be difficult to dig through to get at food underneath.
Those are a few interesting facts about deer behavior in the winter, there’s more to write about in later posts. Just remember that as a hunter or wildlife enthusiast, you should be very supportive of the state wildlife organizations where you live. These people study and understand animal behavior, and use this information to regulate the herd populations, and hopefully preventing massive winter kill, which has to be the cruelest death imaginable.