Not Freezing Their Whitetails Off
Deer in South might lock down, but otherwise fare well in cold
Southern deer might wonder what all the white stuff is, but they suited to adapt to adverse weather. (Wikipedia)
Despite inordinate, lengthy periods of sub-freezing temperatures as well as heavy snowfall and icy conditions in areas that rarely see either, wildlife biologists in the South say deer populations in those regions will continue to survive and thrive.
“They can make due and overcome a lot,” said Chris Cook, the Deer studies project leader for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “A little cold weather can make them a little uncomfortable and be a little out of the ordinary, but it doesn’t affect them. They still eat and breed and make more of them.”
Record low temperatures have been common throughout the South in January and February. A rare snow and ice storm struck Georgia, all but crippling Atlanta for several days. According to the National Weather Service, Atlanta has had only daily snowfalls of an inch or more 55 times since 1928. It was even more rare in south Louisiana, where New Orleans had only its 18th “lasting snow event” since 1849.
“Southern deer really have it good. It’s pretty moderate on the temperature and precipitation side,” said Charlie Killmaster, deer biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “Georgia deer handle it pretty dang well. It just doesn’t get all that cold here. We did have a few days where it got down in the single digits. That’s not enough, really, to do much to negatively impact them.”
Biologist across the country agree that while deer in the South may not usually have to deal with ultra-harsh winter conditions as often, they have the same innate ability to manage as their northern cousins.
Jeremy Flinn, the Midwest regional wildlife biologist for Cabela’s, said a deer must weigh its feeding options every day.
“Really, a deer has to evaluate if it’s energetically efficient to get up and feed,” Flinn said. “When that deer gets up from its bed and goes over to a cut cornfield or wherever it’s heading to feed, it has to make sure the net gain of energy is better than what it burns going to there, the act of feeding and coming back to the bed.
“Sometimes in these big cold snaps, deer will actually go lock down because it’s more efficient for them to sit there and burn fat reserves for energy to build heat in the body than it is for them to actually get up and spend energy going long distances looking for food and coming back to bed.”
“They will clearly utilize those fat reserves,” Cook said. “That’s why they have them. You’d think they’d be up and feeding just to keep that metabolic rate up to where they’re staying warm, but apparently that’s not necessarily how they go about it. They use as little energy as they have to and just find somewhere to stay as warm as they need to. From what little I know about deer behavior in northern climates, it doesn’t appear to be the way they behave in those climates.”
Deer everywhere prepare for the winter by building fat reserves in the summer and fall.
“In a lot of the colder climates they have larger bodied deer, but they also tend to have a bit more fat reserves on the deer than we have in the South,” Flinn said. “However, if you get a deer in Alabama or Mississippi in the winter time and pull the hide off of it, you’ll usually see on a healthy deer good fat build-ups.
“Even with the big cold snaps, it’s going to throw them off in the South, but there’s still more food availability in those areas because they have longer growing seasons than there would be in, let’s say, Minnesota, where there’s a shorter growing season and not only is it cold, (the food) is under 3½ feet of snow.”
Deer who don’t usually experience it act quite differently in snowy and icy conditions, as Cook said hunters in his region will quickly attest.
“Last week with all the snow and ice, I talked to a good number of folks who were able to get out and hunt in it, and they saw basically no deer movement,” Cook said. “The few that they did see were acting like, ‘What is this white stuff everywhere?’ They could see better than they typically could in a day or maybe stuff stood out more to them better than normal, but they were definitely acting strange.”
Harsh conditions later in the winter season will usually cause more problems for the deer in the South, but not typically in fawn development.
“The doe, basically we call her the best forecaster out there in the animal kingdom because she’s predicting 200 days in advance when to drop her fawn so that it has optimum cover and forage,” Flinn said. “But you get that hard freeze late on the oak trees and it basically damages the acorn crop for the next year. The same goes with a lot of your natural forage if you’re getting toward the start of spring green-up and it gets hit with a hard freeze and it kills it, then obviously there’s a little less forage, a little less cover.”
Killmaster said the only part of Georgia where he might predict issues would be for the population in the mountainous northern region.
“I could see there being some weather- or temperature-related issues up there, mainly because we had such a poor mast crop up there and those deer were not likely able to build up good fat reserves,” he said. “That’s probably the only place ever in the state where you’re going to see any level of winter mortality.”
Key for any deer’s survival, Flinn said, is how healthy it is entering the winter.
“The biggest thing, obviously, is what condition is that deer in coming into this harsh winter,” he said. “If we’re talking about bucks coming out of the post-rut, and they really wore themselves out because there were so many does to breed (due to) an off buck-to-doe ratio, so they were breeding pretty much from the beginning of November through December even, then that buck is going to be in some rough shape entering this big cold snap.”
Biologists agreed that it’s rare to die due to freezing conditions if there were not other factors as well.
“It’s not like there are people finding dead deer,” Cook said. “Usually the dead deer that are found are (suffering) from EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease). If they find something this time of year, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on. They’re usually emaciated, so there’s something else going on. It’s rare to find a healthy deer laying there dead.”
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