BISMARCK - The new year is just getting started, but North Dakota wildlife officials already are concerned about the potential impact of heavy snow on deer and other critters.

"We're close to being on pace with the winters of 1996-97 and 2008-09, and when you mention those two years, I just cringe because they were bad for wildlife," said Terry Steinwand, director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

Grand Forks escaped the brunt of a blizzard last week, but areas to the west weren't so fortunate. Devils Lake received about a foot of snow, Bismarck had about 14 inches and Minot had upward of 20 inches.

Coupled with previous storms, that's a lot of snow spread across a wide swath of North Dakota's landscape.

Steinwand said the Game and Fish Department already is receiving depredation complaints of deer and other big game raiding livestock feed supplies. One of the biggest problem areas is west of Garrison, where moose reportedly are getting into bags of stored grain, Steinwand said. The northwest part of the state probably is second for complaints, he said.

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The biggest problems occur when numbers of deer congregate in farmyards to escape deep snow and take advantage of readily available feed supplies.

"Depredation isn't as bad as I thought it would be yet, but this week is supposed to be bitterly cold-20 to 30 (below), somewhere in there," Steinwand said. "If deer haven't congregated yet, they're going to in the next couple of weeks."

Steinwand says the Game and Fish Department offers a variety of programs to reduce incidents of depredation on feed supplies, including scare devices, motion detectors, materials to wrap haystacks and materials for hay yard fences.

It's best to nip problems in the bud early, he said.

"If you see (deer) trying to congregate, let us know right away because it's a lot easier to take care of it," Steinwand said.

Reports of dying or dead deer aren't uncommon during tough winters, and that holds true this winter, as well. Fawns and older deer tend to be most affected by the cold and wind. In addition, when deer raid cattle feed supplies, they can die from grain overload, a condition that occurs when deer switch from natural foods to a diet comprised mostly of corn or other grains.

Pheasant fears

Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for Game and Fish, said the department has concerns about all wildlife during severe winters such as this. Pheasants also struggle during winters with deep snow, and the impact on the popular upland gamebirds remains to be seen, he said.

"Pheasants seem to be doing OK in some areas, but no doubt suffered losses in other areas," Williams said. "What this winter will mean in terms of pheasant hunting opportunities next fall is hard to tell. The rest of the winter will be very telling, and good nesting conditions in spring will be critical."

With the heavy snow conditions, Game and Fish is urging snowmobilers to stay clear of wildlife and the habitat animals need to survive winter.

Running snowmobiles near, through or around winter habitat such as thickets, cattails and wooded areas may inadvertently scare wintering wildlife, causing them additional stress or injury.

"Any undue stress makes it worse" for wildlife, Williams said.

Snowmobiles can be used off an established trail while fox or coyote hunting, but chasing a coyote through cover or across an open field on a snowmobile is illegal. Snowmobiles can't be used to flush, chase or pursue wildlife.

Aerial surveys

The upside to this winter's ample snow conditions is that for the first time in about four years, the Game and Fish Department will conduct statewide aerial deer surveys.

Bill Jensen, big game biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said he expected flying to begin this week if weather conditions permit. Snow is crucial for spotting deer from the air, and lack of snow the past few years has grounded the aerial population surveys.

The aerial surveys are a key tool for setting deer license numbers.

"We've been able to do little piecemeal flights here and there, but nothing on a broad scale for probably about four years now," Jensen said. "Sometimes, we'll get 6 inches of snow and it looks pretty white out, but you get up in a plane and there's a lot of brown and black patches where you just can't see the deer. But this year, with the combination of heavy snows and wind, then followed up with more snow, we should be in real good shape."

Jensen said the depredation complaints tend to escalate after the first of the year during winters such as this. For humans, being outside for even short periods can be challenging, Jensen said. Now, imagine living outside 24 hours a day, seven days a week-and then trying to find something to eat in the process.

"They're basically relying upon fat reserves, and now it comes down to a race, where it's like a hole in the bucket," Jensen said. "If winter ends before the bucket runs out, they live. And if it runs out before the winter ends, they don't. It's basically that simple."