Last week, I spent the most time in the woods of any time since the muzzleloader deer season ended. After taking my son out for his youth turkey season, I had my own tag for the first turkey hunting period, which ran April 16 to 22. I had a difficult time finding birds, or even signs of birds; with the snowfall we had, I struggled to even find open roads. While I did not get to see many turkeys, I had a great opportunity to get out in the snow-laden woods and check on the wildlife out there.
On April 17, we had well over a foot of snow in the woods. The snow was granular and dense, so whenever it got below freezing, a strong crust forms. Wildlife is actually getting around on top of the crusted snow fairly well. I see coyote and wolf tracks crisscrossing the roads and trails. The few turkey tracks I saw indicated they were walking without trouble. Rabbits and snowshoe hares are very well equipped, as are squirrels. Deer were punching through the crust with their sharper hooves, making walking more difficult. They were trying to stay on established deer trails, snowmobile trails or road edges.
I saw little or no sign of rodent tracks. They had constructed tunnel networks in the subnivium, which is the area between the snow and the ground where temperatures stay stable due to the heat released from the ground and trapped by the insulating effects of the snow blanket. Other than having to deal with a lot of moisture, they move around more easily through the soft, granular bottom snow layer, content to stay under cover and feed on whatever seeds they can find. Rodents are an important part of the diet of owls, hawks, foxes and coyotes; this lack of access to mice and voles can’t be beneficial. They will have to turn to other food sources, like squirrels, rabbits, hares, grouse and turkeys. Coyotes are able to use the snow to their advantage to take down some winter-weary deer, too.
I noticed that some of the steeper south-facing slopes were opening up. Some green plants were poking through, which are valuable to lots of wildlife. Those open slopes also give wildlife access to last fall’s seeds and acorns, and some of the first insects of the year. I saw mourning doves, robins, even red-winged blackbirds using these open areas. Areas with recent timber harvest were opening up as well; the dark stumps and branches absorb sunlight and help collect heat that makes small gaps in the snow.
To my surprise, what I didn’t see were bear tracks. Bears would normally be done with hibernation by mid-April. I had one or two second-hand reports of bears, and I heard about car-killed bears in the area. They must be out, just not where I was hunting. Much like last year, this spring I expect bears are going to get in a little trouble, coming close to human homes to try to find food. I know deer are working the feeders by peoples’ homes; many people like to put out food not only to see the deer, but also to try to help them. A reminder that anyone feeding deer has to follow legal guidelines, placing no more than two gallons of feed, and not feeding in proximity to a road with a speed limit of 45 mph or greater. Corn is not recommended; go to your local feed store and buy the custom deer food mix they have available. This gives them what they need, and does not cause physical harm like straight corn or oats can. If bears come to your feeder, you need to discontinue for 30 days. Get the wildlife feeding guidelines at dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/bait.html.
Head into the Northwoods if you can, and see for yourself how wildlife has coped with our record-breaking winter.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.