Long winter will affect Maine deer and ticks, but not bears

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RUMFORD — A state wildlife biologist in Strong who monitors deer-wintering yards across Western Maine believes deer aren’t going to fare well through this prolonged, brutal winter.

“This winter is not good for deer,” state biologist Chuck Hulsey said. “Deer are going to take a hit this year.”

April 1 is the date when they break out of their winter yards, he said. “They should still have energy and fat reserves left, but the longer they’re stuck in the yards after April is not good for them, and they’re going to be stuck there beyond April 1.”

He said the snowpack is still too deep.

Measuring snow and temperatures is something Maine wildlife biologists do every week during the winter at up to 30 stations in deer yards. By gathering data on how far deer sink into snow when walking or running atop it, the condition of the snow and temperatures, a winter severity index can be established. The measurements are used to determine how many any-deer permits will be made available to hunters in next fall’s season.

Hulsey said the snowfall was above average this year and he believes the winter has already killed deer, which are under-engineered to survive at the northern end of their range.

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“When you have small, pointed, sharp feet, that’s not good for deep snow,” he said. “In most of their range, it is not an issue. But at the end of their range, it is.”

This winter started early, bringing brutal temperatures and snow that never let up, Hulsey said. In the fall, deer build and store body fat under their skin and around internal organs that insulates them while providing an energy reserve for the coming winter. The stored fat is burned during winter to compensate for the lack of protein in their winter diet.

When deep snow and brutal winds start early and continue through spring, deer run out of fat reserves and die, he said.

“Because it’s been so cold, it’s been relentless in impacting them,” Hulsey said. “The cold and mobility are the bigger of the two issues. Twenty-five to 30 degrees is not much of a factor on them, but prolonged temperatures below zero will affect deer.”

He added, “I’ve been out in the field a lot this winter, and I’ve been cold — uncomfortably cold.”

On the plus side, this winter should help reduce the heavy infestation of ticks, Hulsey said.

He said ticks start dropping off their hosts in March and April and will land on deep snow now instead of bare ground.

“They can stay on the snow for a while, but not for long, so (this winter) will be a negative impact on the ticks, but no one’s going to be unhappy about that,” he said.

Bears better off

As for Maine black bears, they’re not at the end of their range and spend most of the winter snug inside their dens, protected from the elements, said Jennifer Vashon, a Canada lynx and black bear biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

That is, unless they build dens in flood-prone areas, she said Friday.

“When they leave their dens in April, they’re still a little lethargic and they have little ground nests around the den,” so they don’t travel too far, she said. “Bears still come out, regardless of how much snow is on the ground.”

A prolonged winter doesn’t have a significant effect on them in the long term, state biologist Randy Cross said.

The time that a bear spends in a den is most influenced by how early they entered the den, which varies widely from year to year depending on fall natural food supplies, Cross said.

“Last fall, most bears stayed out quite late, so their period of winter torpor will be shorter than many years, regardless of how long they may have to wait for the plants to green up,” he said.

Based on his experience, female bears in northern Maine leave their dens consistently in mid-April, even if there is 4 feet of snow on the ground.

“They don’t get really active foraging right away, anyway,” Cross said. “Crusts are usually supporting at that time of year and probably will be this year, as well. They seem to start off with rolling in the snow, and then building a ground nest in the sun to stage from.”

After a few days of resting, they slowly begin to increase their activity levels, eventually eating a few buds of beech, maple, willow and especially aspen, he said.

Cross said bears won’t become nuisances, hitting bird feeders and residential garbage sites, until they move around more and find no natural food available.

“They are not likely to run around much, wasting energy looking for food that isn’t there yet,” he said.

That’s why he said it’s still too early to predict how soon complaints about conflicts with bears and people will begin.

“I expect this to be an off year as far as natural foods go, but I’m hoping it’s not as bad as 2012,” he said. “2012 was a poor food year.”

In 2012, bears emerged from dens a month earlier than usual, found little to no natural food and began raiding residential areas.

Complaints poured in, Vashon said.

“It was so unusual,” she said. “On average, we respond to 500 conflicts between people and bears each year.”

As of Dec. 2, 2013, there were 311 conflicts; but in 2012, there was a record 827 conflicts.

Maine’s bear population is currently at more than 30,000 and growing, she said.

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