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April’s wintry blast causes concern over Michigan deer

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

April’s cruel blasts of snow and cold have punished Michigan’s whitetail deer, especially in the Upper Peninsula, where spring’s food is smothered in nearly 2 feet of late snowpack.

Forecasts are better in the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, even after a mid-month blizzard dumped deep snow, and additional stress, on deer across both peninsulas only weeks before they give birth.

“Deer are tough, and one bad storm typically isn’t going to have much of an impact,” said Ashley Autenrieth, a deer program biologist at the Gaylord center of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “What does concern us, is that we do need a green-up soon. What we could see potentially is lower fawn weights at birth.

“As long as we have a good flush of growth and not a cold, wet spring, we should see our fawns bounce back. If we have a cold spring, we might see a lower fawn crop.”

A different, more disturbing, reality confronts the U.P. herd after it was slammed last weekend by as much as 24 inches of spring snow.

“We’re quite concerned,” said Terry Minzey, Upper Peninsula regional wildlife supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resource. “I don’t think we’re alarmed yet, but we have a high level of concern at this point of the year. These deer need to get some good nutritious vegetation.

“I have no doubt we are going to be losing some of last year’s fawns, as some of that started to some extent even before the latest storms. And we may well lose some of this year’s fawns.”

Michigan’s whitetail herd is estimated at more than 1.5 million, with perhaps 300,000-400,000 animals in the U.P.

The problem, Minzey and Autenrieth explain, is one of multiple issues for whitetails.

They feed ideally on grasses and plants that sprout in spring and remain abundant into fall. They feed afterward on cedar and hardwood “browse” that can require more expenditure of energy than it provides.

“Those fetuses are in the final trimester,” Minzey said, speaking of fawns that will be born next month, “and bucks are developing antlers. Females have to have enough energy so that they can lactate (nurse), and right now, their bodies don’t have the fat reserves they need to support those fawns.

“We may see cases where a lot of fawns are born too small. So if these fawns are born weighing four and five pounds, they’re not going to thrive, and a lot won’t survive.”

Autenrieth said while the situation in the northern Lower Peninsula isn’t as acute, this month’s snowstorms are troubling.

“You already have a weak animal at his point, so during the day, it’s important that Mom gets enough nutrition,” Autenrieth said of does that soon will drop their fawns. “Then if it’s really rainy and cold outside, those aren’t good conditions for a fawn.

“Think of it much like a human kid. It can play outside when it’s really nice out, but you don’t want them out there in the cold and rain. You use more body reserves, and potentially can get sick.”

Michigan’s deer herd is the centerpiece of a state’s wildlife population and an important slice of Up North commerce. The state estimates that significantly more than $2 billion is spent each year by Michigan deer hunters.

Minzey was at least heartened this week by forecasts for the northwest U.P. that showed temperatures ranging into the 50s from Saturday through Tuesday. The question, in his mind, is all a matter of how fast that heavy snow can melt.

“I think the jury’s still out as for how much of a reduction (in deer herd) we’ll see,” he said. “This winter has been different from most. In most years, you get your big snows early and it hangs on.

“This year, we had some open fields in March, and then April came and knocked us back. I think those deer in the northern and western areas (U.P.) will be impacted more than in the southern and eastern.

“But it doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods.”