Outdoor Column

It's been a tough winter for deer, northwestern Ontario biologist says

Most deer deaths from starvation and exhaustion come right at the end of winter, according to biologist Bruce Ranta, and the forecast is calling for two or three more weeks of snow cover in some areas, he said.

A long winter, deep snow, and less food are all playing a role, Bruce Ranta says

These days, deer in northwestern Ontario are reliant on browse for winter food, said biologist Bruce Ranta, referring to the leaves, twigs and buds of woody plants. "Browse isn't as good, it isn't as abundant, it isn't as lush," he said.

Winter 2017-2018 has been a tough one for deer, according to a retired biologist with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.  

"It looks like it's a severe winter to me," said Bruce Ranta, who is also a blogger and outdoor writer.  "I think deer are having a hard time because the snow is deep, and it's been a long winter." 

Areas that used to have large deer populations have almost no deer now, Ranta said, though there are still lots of deer in cities because people are feeding them — despite bylaws prohibiting the practice. 

Most deer deaths from starvation and exhaustion come right at the end of winter, he added.
Bruce Ranta is a retired wildlife biologist who used to work for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. He said most deer deaths from starvation and exhaustion come right at the end of winter. (Jeff Walters / CBC)

"The longer it lasts, the worse the probability and possibility of it being really bad for deer.  If it all melted tomorrow, deer would breathe a sigh of relief, and everybody would be happy, but the weather forecasts, from what I can see, say we're going to have at least two, three more weeks of snow cover on the ground," he said. 

The changing ecosystem is also making it harder for deer to survive the winters, Ranta said.

A recent study he co-authored with Murray Lancaster found that deer used to persevere by eating lichens on trees killed off by the spruce budworm. 

"But that budworm and all the lichen hasn't been around now for 15 or so years, so they're pretty much reliant on browse these days," Ranta said, browse referring to the leaves, twigs and buds of woody plants. 

"Browse isn't as good, it isn't as abundant, it isn't as lush," he said, "and when you have a bad winter, it's really hard on the deer now."