Long winter may affect Maine deer and moose, but bears don’t care

A one-antlered deer takes center stage among several others near Stratton in this January 2014 photo. A landowner regularly feeds the deer and people often stop by to take photos of the hungry herd.
Courtesy of Alyssa Urquhart
A one-antlered deer takes center stage among several others near Stratton in this January 2014 photo. A landowner regularly feeds the deer and people often stop by to take photos of the hungry herd.
Posted March 28, 2014, at 5:30 a.m.
A bull moose stands in an open area of Maine's Wildlife Management District 19. Lee Kantar, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, performed a moose survey by helicopter Tuesday morning, Jan. 29, 2013.
Brian Feulner | BDN
A bull moose stands in an open area of Maine's Wildlife Management District 19. Lee Kantar, a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, performed a moose survey by helicopter Tuesday morning, Jan. 29, 2013. Buy Photo
After putting a new GPS collar on her and recording her health stats, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biology technician Jake Feener puts a two-year-old female black bear back into her tree den in Unity on Feb. 22.
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
After putting a new GPS collar on her and recording her health stats, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biology technician Jake Feener puts a two-year-old female black bear back into her tree den in Unity on Feb. 22. Buy Photo

As the state’s winter-that-will-never end continues, many two-legged Mainers have had enough.

Some are booking trips south. Others are refusing to shovel their driveways again. And at least one bold Bangor pedestrian spotted last week decided he was going to wear shorts and a tank top no matter what Mother Nature dished out.

But what about our four-legged Mainers? How are they faring as our snowpack lingers and temperatures remain below freezing.

The BDN reached out to three wildlife biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to see how this winter may be affecting three iconic critters: Moose, deer and bears.

Moose: Good news, bad news

Lee Kantar, the DIF&W’s moose biologist, said the extended string of winter weather isn’t really his top concern. Instead, he’s focusing on what kind of winter weather the moose have had to endure.

“I’d say this is an unusual winter, and not necessarily because of the snow and the length of the winter, but because we had a very serious, significant crust that set up early on,” Kantar said. “It created a snow profile that was really problematic, and we saw that moose early in the winter were spending a lot of time in cover and not moving around as much as they normally would.”

Kantar said that the crusty snow would sometimes be able to support a moose’s weight. Other times, it wouldn’t. Consequently, the moose headed into thick cover and stayed there until food ran out.

Kantar said he has observed that behavior during his times in the woods, and he backs up the assertion by studying GPS and Google Earth images linked to 60 moose fitted with GPS collars earlier in the winter.

Kantar said adult moose probably fared fine, while calves struggled to survive.

“Not being full-grown, these, from a moose perspective, are small animals,” he said. “It’s been a very difficult winter for them because of the locomotion and energetic demands on them.”

There is a silver lining, however.

“The good news about a long winter is that when those winter ticks fall off [the moose], they’re going to drop off into snow and die. So hopefully we get some good losses of winter ticks,” Kantar said.

When winter ticks end up on moose in large numbers, they can make the moose more sensitive to cold weather. Moose try to rid themselves of the ticks but end up scraping off the insulating coat. In extreme cases, moose may die.

Ticks will drop off the moose in March and April, Kantar said.

“The adults have taken a blood meal on a moose, causing problems on the back of a moose, and the females will drop off and hopefully die,” he said. “Normally they would survive, in a snow-free year, and lay their eggs that lay dormant until they become larvae at the end of the summer and start climbing up on the vegetation in the fall until they get on a moose again.”

Kantar hopes that this year, fewer ticks actually succeed in finding that host.

Deer facing struggle

Kyle Ravana, the DIF&W’s deer biologist, said that this year hasn’t been as brutal as the winters of 2008 and 2009, but it’s not been an easy one for deer, either.

“It’s another good, old-fashioned Maine winter,” Ravana said. “And we think there’s going to be an impact on the deer herd.”

With that said, Ravana isn’t predicting a doom-and-gloom scenario.

“I think an important thing to keep in mind is that up in northern Maine, we’re coming off four consecutive below-average winters, moderate winters at that, and two consecutive below-average winters in the southern half of the state,” Ravana said. “I think that has set up our deer population to be able to absorb at least one hard winter.”

Ravana said that during the back-to-back harsh winters of 2008 and 2009, biologists estimated that Maine lost 35 percent of its deer herd each year.

Since then, the herd has rebounded nicely.

“There are going to be some hard times, but the deer have the ability to get through those hard times,” Ravana said, pointing out that the state’s deer have evolved to be able to survive here. “Through proper management, good, sound management, we can help them get through those tough times.”

The bears don’t care

So, what are the bears up to?

Well, they’re hibernating, of course.

But does a late dose of winter weather affect them adversely?

Randy Cross, a bear biologist for the DIF&W, who leads the crew that conducts Maine’s long-running bear research, says bears may come out of their dens when there’s still snow on the ground, but that doesn’t seem to bother them a bit.

“The best I can tell, female bears in northern Maine leave their dens consistently in mid-April whether they come out with four feet of snow on the ground or not,” Cross said. “They don’t get really active foraging right away anyway.”

Cross said bears will start off their spring activities by rolling around in the snow to build a ground nest, then might venture out to find some beech, maple or aspen buds to munch on.

Cross said males often leave their dens a little bit earlier than females. He also said that in southern Maine study areas, all bears typically leave their dens about two weeks earlier than they do in northern Maine.

And the timing among bears that leave dens fairly close to each other can be amazingly similar.

“One year when we had GPS collars on two prime-age adult females with yearlings, they both left their dens on April 13 within four hours of each other,” Cross said.

 

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