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Bitter cold winter takes a toll on wildlife

Deer foraging for food
Deer foraging for food

The extreme cold this winter is taking a toll on wildlife across the country, leaving some animals desperate for food.

Although many animals and birds gorge on food in the fall so that extra fatty layer will help them survive the winter, during the coldest, snowiest of winters, it may not be enough.

Birds lower their metabolic rate during the cold northern winters, as do many animals. By staying inactive, they conserve energy. Raccoons may “hole up” in a log or hollow tree for weeks at a time, coming out only occasionally to feed. Chipmunks are relatively inactive from late fall through the winter months, venturing out only on warm, sunny days. Even squirrels will remain in their dens when the weather is very cold or stormy.

Skunks spend the winter in their den, in groups of a dozen or more. However, as many as 50 percent can die during harsh, snowy winters when there is deep snow and a lack of food to find, according to the Michigan State University Extension.

Deer are especially affected by the loss of food that a long, cold, snowy winter may bring. Telltale signs of their starvation may be the woodland areas stripped of tree bark and vegetation as high as a deer can reach.

Heavy snows can hide precious food from herbivores. And water may be hard to find. A heated water dish left out for woodland critters can be a big help towards their survival.

Normally shy animals may take greater risks, inching in closer to the human population as their need for food and water increases. For lack of food means starvation and death. During the harshest weather, the animals most likely to survive are the predators which feed on the carcasses of animals which cannot survive.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) recommends the following to help deer in the winter, however, not disturbing other types of wildlife is a good idea as well, since it can affect them as well. The DWR says:

“Anytime a deer is disturbed, it has to burn some of its precious fat reserves to try to escape the threat.

With that in mind, not disturbing deer is one of the best things you can do to help deer in the winter:

  • When you're in the backcountry, keep your dog on a leash. Don't let your dog harass deer.
  • If you encounter deer while hiking, skiing or snowmobiling, give the animals plenty of space, and remain as quiet as you can.
  • SLOW DOWN while driving through areas where deer live. It's especially important to drive slowly at dawn and dusk, when deer are most active.
  • Pay attention to wildlife crossing signs.
  • Watch for movement along the side of the road. If you spot one deer, there's a good chance other deer are with it.”

Some states have emergency feeding plans for deer, feeding them specially designed pellets to give them energy. However, as PETA notes, “Ironically, many deer herds and duck populations are purposely manipulated to produce more and more animals for hunters to kill.”

This is the time of year that animals such as deer, raccoons and squirrels carry their offspring. If the mother doe or sow doesn’t make it, the babies won’t either. We can only hope that the worst of winter is finally behind us, for ourselves and for the new generation of animals we hope to see come summer.

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