Wildlife Watch: Wintering habitat critical to whitetail survival

Published: Dec. 6, 2022 at 6:25 PM EST
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WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont’s harsh winters can be tough on everyone, including animals in the wild. But the state’s white-tailed deer have some amazing strategies that allow them to survive.

On private land in Williston, a game path marks where white-tailed deer make their winter home.

“We are on the edge of a nice chunk of deer wintering habitat. And what it is, it’s a connected piece of softwood forest. So, a lot of conifers, so it’s dark and it’s very protective for the deer going into the winter,” said Andrea Shortsleeve, a private lands habitat biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. She says habitats like this are key to deer survival. “We are kind of at the northern limit of where deer can survive year-round. And areas like this protect them in the winter. protect them from cold temperatures, deep snow, the winds. And in the winter months, their biology kind of changes and they don’t do a lot of eating. Their key to survival is conserving energy and areas like this help them do it.”

Shortsleeve says finding these wintering habitats isn’t a short walk in the woods. They are usually deep and hidden to protect the deer. “One of the key things that identify this sort of habitat is the closed canopy of the trees. So, if you get into an area that has a lot of hemlock, spruce, or fur -- or even thick pine -- you look up into the canopy and it’s really dark. That’s a key component that tips you off that you are in a wintering area,” she said

“These conifer trees, these evergreen trees will intercept a lot of the falling snow. So, if you walk through these areas in the winter, there is a lot less snow on the ground than there is in the more open area which allows deer to move around a lot more easily. It also helps hold in some of the heat. And equally important, we all know when it’s cold and the wind is blowing, it’s much, much colder, so these areas block a lot of wind, too,” said Nick Fortin, Fish and Wildlife’s deer project leader. He says when you run into a deer wintering area, you’ll know it. “What you are more likely to see is you will see deer. You will see a concentration of deer. They are not moving around much. They are going to be in that specific area and you will see deer... Usually, the cover is really important. But deer are trying to avoid any disturbance so they are staying back away from woods, away from people. So, you are often back in the woods a little way. These habitats are not that common, so on the landscape in Vermont overall, this is usually less than 10% of all deer range -- is winter habitats. So, they are relatively rare.”

Since this land is important for deer survival, Fortin says the private landownerslandowners can be the key to a healthy ecosystem. “A lot of deer yards in Vermont -- particularly today -- are mostly on private lands, some is on public land but a majority of deer spend their winters on private land in Vermont. It’s really up to private land owners in Vermont to protect these habitats and help us manage them,” he said.

“We know as the climate changes and as things get warmer, having connected landscapes and connected habitats -- the whole spectrum of all habitats -- is really important. And that’s where Vermont plays a critical role in New England and providing connectivity through the region. We spend a lot of time in these areas talking about deer but these are is also critical to a number of other animals through the year,” Shortsleeve said.

A look ahead at how one of Vermont’s iconic creatures makes it through the winter.