Warmer winter weather results in wildlife getting active sooner

Posted March 1, 2017

Recent warmer-than-normal winter temperatures are creating a bustle of wildlife activity across Wisconsin. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials say they have been fielding phone calls from residents wondering about what some animals are doing.

“We get calls all the time that people are seeing over a hundred deer congregating together and, believe it or not, that is not unusual,” Kevin Wallenfang, a DNR deer and elk ecologist, said in a telephone call.

Wallenfang said this has been a very mild winter so far and the deer population has been growing. Deer are more likely to be weakened by heavy amounts of snow.

“I haven’t been out, but the warm weather can have an effect on the wildlife,” added Ryan Haffele, DNR wildlife biologist for Pierce and St. Croix counties.

“We are starting to see birds pair up already,” he said.

Some birds, like geese, are opportunistic. They may start nesting because of the warm weather. Other birds are not. Area residents may hear turkeys calling or see them strutting around, but that doesn’t mean they will start nesting. Birds like pheasants are more affected by the length of daylight, not the temperature. Those birds will start nesting in early April or May, Haffele said.

According to DNR officials, the warm-up is causing more daytime activity, and animals don’t have to expend as much energy. They are taking advantage of the warm weather.

“Now that the snow is gone you can really see deer in people’s yards or in fields,” said Wallenfang. Since the hunting season has ended, deer have settled down and are more comfortable.

Deer can be seen congregating on fields, eating waste grain and looking for grass on west-facing slopes. In late winter, deer typically congregate together and herd up, because they are more successful in numbers. That kind of activity is being reported earlier this year, according to Wallenfang.

Weather experts say 2015-2016 was the warmest year globally since records began to be kept in 1880.

When it’s warm, deer need less nutrients and a smaller fat reserve to survive on. According to experts, the deer population is increasing.

“We anticipate a good recurrent high fawn production. That’s beneficial for deer lovers,” said Wallenfang.

Pierce County deer harvest numbers from hunting were down in 2016 to a total of 4,425. The total harvested in 2015 was 4,760.

“Pierce County is a very productive county as far as deer are concerned. Typically, we will see lots of twin births,” said Haffele.

If the deer population rises too high, it results in a poor quality habitat for them. The process may take five to nine years, and at this point the region is in the middle of such a cycle, according to Haffele.

Because of the warm weather, plants begin to green up, especially in ditches along roads. People will need to be careful and look for animals feeding there, said Wallenfang.

Phil Meixner from the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office said that so far there hasn’t been an uptick in animal-related vehicle collisions.

The hardest hit animals in warmer-than-normal winter temperatures are those that burrow into the ground. The melting snow will cause water to run in to their dens.

“People may start seeing bears coming out of there dens looking for a dry place to finish hibernating,” added Wallenfang. Bears don’t like to be wet. If a female bear has cubs, she will move them somewhere dry. The cubs are about the size of a squirrel, they don’t have any hair and they can’t see. It’s not surprising for bears to find a dead log or culvert where they can curl up after they raid a few bird feeders. They are very adaptable, amazing creatures, said Wallenfang.

“We don’t see a lot of bears here locally,” said Brad Peterson, Pierce County’s conservation officer. They are more likely to be seen in Polk and St. Croix counties.

According to the DNR’s website, “Adult black bear may weigh 250 to more than 500 pounds, but when they awaken in spring, bears have lost approximately 25-40 percent of their body weight and emerge from winter dens really hungry, looking to replenish reserves depleted over the winter.”

If you encounter a bear, stay calm, wildlife officials say. Bears are shy and if not conditioned to humans, will usually flee quickly. If you see a bear in the woods, make some noise so the bear knows you are there. Slowly back away and allow the bear a clear exit that doesn’t intersect your path.