With all the snow we’ve had this winter in Alberta, it’s getting tough out there for deer and other large ungulates (hoofed animals). Walking through deep snow takes a lot of energy, especially if the snow has been sitting for a while and has been through a few freeze-thaw cycles. In the latter case the snow pack includes crusted layers that can abrade the skin as the animal continually walks through the same layers. Thus, when the snow depth gets close to the belly, deer tend to use the same trails over and over again, sticking to the same general area where the snow has been well beat down. This is called “yarding up”, and the deer start forming larger and larger social groups, visiting the same feeding areas which soon become devoid of food. Venturing out to find more food has many risks including not finding enough feed to justify the energy expended and exposing oneself to predators while in vulnerable positions.
March can be an especially harsh month at the best of times. The quality of the food in the bush has degraded over the winter and many animals have been steadily losing the fat they had stored in the fall. Spring, with its fresh green sprouts and leaves, is still a few weeks off. And with a deep snow layer, it takes a lot of energy to dig down in the snow and often what food is found does not compensate for the energy used to dig down to it. It’s at this time of the year that pregnant does will lose their fetuses (mostly through absorption) if they are not receiving enough nutrition. In extreme situations, starvation can step in, weakening the deer and further making them vulnerable to predation and disease.
Over the last few years, our neighbors have been feeding the deer over the winter. In previous years the snow depth has been moderate to non-existent, and we only occasionally would see white-tailed deer cross our place on their way to the feeders on the neighbors’ property. Deer are mainly crepuscular—active mostly during dusk and dawn—and stay hidden during the day. This year the deer have been very bold coming across our property at all times of the day. They use our ski trails and driveways as passage ways to the deer feeders (where oats and hay are available). It has been interesting to watch as different social (family) groups interact with one another. We have seen foot stomping, kicking and chases. Some of the young bucks have retained their antlers even to this late date.
The tendency to use well-used trails can also force the animals to use roads and highways more than usual, and as a result vehicle/ungulate collisions increase at this time of year.
Feeding deer does help the deer at this time of year. However, these animals are browsers (eat protein-rich woody vegetation) and although they do get some nutrition from hay and other grasses, they do not get all they need from these sources (unlike, elk, cattle or sheep, the flora and fauna in a deer’s digestive tract is not built to digest grass completely). As a result, deer have been known to starve with full bellies.
So, we are hoping that warm weather comes soon, not just because we are tired of plowing and shoveling snow (we are), but to also relieve the stress on our wildlife.