Winter habitat crucial to healthy and stable UP deer population

Northwoods Notebook

A pileated woodpecker surveys a tree at Six Mile Lake. This crow-sized bird probably is the largest of North America’s woodpeckers. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News Photos)

Listening to the police scanner at the office these days has been a little depressing.

Every morning and evening seems marked by calls for deceased or injured deer, picked off as they tried to cross roads in the region.

I know this can be an indicator of a healthy local herd in the region. I hope that is so, considering the hit numbers took from the three severe winters earlier in the decade.

But what brings deer and drivers increasingly together at this time is the animals are shifting to wintering grounds, areas that offer food and, most importantly, shelter to stay warm when temperatures plunge or storms move in, said Monica Joseph, wildlife biologist at the Department of Natural Resources’ office in Crystal Falls.

The Upper Peninsula is the northern edge of the white-tailed deer’s natural range, Joseph explained. They aren’t really suited to dealing with deep snow like their much taller and longer-legged moose cousins.

At Six Mile Lake, about nine to 10 deer now regularly congregate under the bird feeder.

So once the region begins to see significant snow — say 6 to 8 inches — they’ll seek sites where conditions might be at least a little more favorable, Joseph said.

While this winter movement isn’t nearly on the scale of migrations made by pronghorn antelope in the western U.S. or caribou in the Alaskan arctic, some tagged deer have been tracked by GPS traveling 50 miles, Joseph said. A young buck killed near Crystal Falls this fall had been tagged as a fawn nearly 40 miles away, she said, adding young males will disperse looking for territory.

Not all deer will make such long journeys, especially if conditions are suitable where they are, Joseph said.

But it points up how crucial these “deer wintering complexes” — or “deer yards” — are to maintaining a healthy and stable population in the U.P. Depending on the size, some complexes will draw several herds, she said.

According to the DNR, deer in the U.P. will congregate on 30 percent of their normal range in winter.

These areas usually have cedar and hemlock, or a mix of white pine and spruce, the deer use as “houses,” bedding down in a grove that offers some cover from predators and the elements while conserving energy, Joseph said.

Cedar and hemlock live a long time — some types are thought to survive hundreds, even thousands of years — so deer likely have been seeking out these same areas for generations. That’s the upside. The downside is cedar and hemlock have proven almost impossible to re-establish in the region once removed, Joseph said.

The reasons why are a mystery, she said. Perhaps the trees needs regular fires to foster growth, Joseph said. They also prefer wet soils, so it could be the U.P. has turned too dry, she speculated.

Whatever the reason, for now, “once you’ve cut it, you’ve mined it,” Joseph said. “So you need to preserve what you have.”

That’s why the DNR has stepped up education efforts among landowners and loggers not to clear these areas. “The yards are basically degrading,” Joseph said, “and deer need them.”

The DNR can work with landowners near deer wintering complexes to protect and improve what remains, such as the Forest Stewardship Program and the Forestry Assistance Program.

To learn more about various cost share programs that can help offset the cost of resource management plan preparation, contact Ernie Houghton, a DNR Eastern U.P. service forester, at 906-786-2351.

The U.P. Habitat Workgroup can be reached by calling Jim Hammill at 906-875-6487.

More information is available as well at the DNR’s webpage at www.michigan.gov/dnr.

****

At Six Mile Lake, about nine to 10 deer now regularly congregate under the bird feeder in our backyard, vying for the black oil sunflower seeds intended for our birds. The does spar for space when the numbers rise, pinning back ears, tossing up heads and giving each other their most intimidating stink eye. They even will rear, cuff and chase the younger deer to establish who gets the best access to the seed supply. A little alarming, to have the yard become a mixed martial arts event.

Ultimately, they seem to sort it all out and everyone, even the smallest of the fawns, will have a turn at the feeder and mineral block.

It does make me wonder if we might be doing more harm than good, yet I’m reluctant to remove the feeder and not be able to enjoy the birds, even with the added deer drama.

*****

We had another visitor to the backyard last weekend, this one not nearly as common: a pileated woodpecker that spent a couple hours working on different trees. While I regularly see the flashy pileateds, it’s usually flying over roads, not foraging.

This crow-sized bird probably is the largest of North America’s woodpeckers, but that wasn’t always so — it used to be outsized by the ivory-billed woodpecker of the southeastern old-growth forests and larger yet lesser-known imperial woodpecker of Mexico, both likely extinct due to habitat loss.

Many of the woodpecker species can be very sensitive to conditions — the red-headed woodpecker, for example, has experienced a 70 percent decline in the past half-century as the nut-bearing trees it favored, such as oak and chestnut, were lost to disease or land clearing, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The pileated, too, may initially have struggled when large areas of eastern and northern forest were cleared, but they’ve definitely rebounded and have been steadily increasing in number from 1966 to 2014, according to Cornell.

It can be a destructive bird, opening up large rectangular holes, but it also is a vigorous consumer of carpenter ants, plus larvae of woodboring beetles, spruce budworm and caterpillars.

They also eat wild fruits and nuts, including sumac and poison ivy, according to Cornell. Pileated woodpeckers have been known to use bird feeders, especially for suet, but we have never seen one at our current feeders, even though we have a large-size suet cage. My parents used to have better luck, I am told, when the suet was tacked on the side of one of the maple trees.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

COMMENTS