April is the cruellest month, as poet T.S. Eliot grimly observed.
For whitetail deer, this year’s longer winter and higher snow levels has been especially hard, says the wildlife branch of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship.
Drivers may have noticed large herds of them hanging around in ditches even in broad daylight.
Deep snow is making food hard to find in the bush and the deer are also seeking to avoid crusted snow, as their tiny, sharp-pointed hooves break through, and that makes it easier for lighter-stepping predators such as coyotes to run them down.
“It’s been a tough winter on deer. They’re looking for feed anywhere there’s a break in the snow,” said Ken Rebizant, the province’s big game manager.
Manitoba is at the northern limit of the whitetail deer’s range and Mother Nature is a harsh mistress. Typically the fawns die first, followed by the bucks that spent a greater portion of their fat reserves duelling each other and chasing females during the fall rut.
“The does are usually the last to be affected, thankfully,” said Rebizant, noting one buck can impregnate a large number of females, leading to quick population rebounds.
About 15 to 20 per cent don’t survive even the mildest of winters, and moderate to severe weather can boost that to 30 or 40 per cent. Last year, very little snow and an early spring saw numbers rebound from the year previous when, once again, a heavy crust resulted in heavy mortality rates.
As deer search more for food, they are more visible at midday and lose their fear of people, often wandering into yards and along roadsides.
Drivers need to be constantly vigilant to avoid hitting panicked deer.
Fleeing deer choose the path of least resistance, and this year that often means they’ll try to escape a passing vehicle by running along the roadway.
“Even if they are on top of the road, give them an opportunity to get off because that will cause them to expend more energy,” said Rebizant, adding he’s seen many deer that are virtually skin and bones.
Some deer will, of course, survive even in the harshest of winters. Conservation recommends that people not feed deer, at any time of the year. Changing their diet now could be even harder on the animals, as they may not be able to digest rich food.
The heavy winterkill will likely mean that last year’s one deer-per hunter limit will continue, he added.