Wintering habitat critical to whitetail survival

WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) — Vermont’s harsh winters can be harsh 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 trail marks where white-tailed deer winter.

“We are on the edge of a nice piece of deer wintering ground. And what it is, it’s a continuous stretch of softwood forest. So, lots of conifers, so it’s dark and it’s very protective for the deer going into the winter,” said Andrea Shortsleeve, a private terrestrial habitat biologist with the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife. She says habitats like this are key to the deer’s survival. “We are sort of on the northern frontier where deer can survive all year round. And areas like this protect them in winter. Protect them from cold, deep snow, wind. And in the winter months, their biology changes and they don’t eat much. Their key to survival is conserving energy, and areas like this help them do that.”

According to Shortsleeve, finding these wintering habitats is no short walk in the woods. They are usually deep and hidden to protect the deer. “One of the most important things that characterizes this type of habitat is the closed canopy of the trees. So if you come to 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 lets you know you’re in a wintering area,” she said

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“These conifers, these evergreen trees will absorb a lot of the falling snow. So if you go through these areas in winter there is a lot less snow on the ground than in the more open areas, which allows the deer to move much more easily. It also helps retain some of the heat. And just as importantly, we all know that when it’s cold and the wind is blowing, it’s much, much colder, so those areas also block a lot of the wind,” said Nick Fortin, deer project manager at Fish and Wildlife. He says if you walk into a deer wintering ground, you’ll know. “What you’re more likely to see is you’re going to see deer. You will see a concentration of deer. You don’t move much. You will be in that particular area and you will see deer… Usually cover is really important. But deer try to avoid any disturbance, so they stay away from forests and people. So you are often a bit in the forest again. These habitats are not as common, so in the Vermont landscape as a whole, these typically represent less than 10% of total deer richness – winter habitats. So they are relatively rare.”

Because this land is important to deer survival, Fortin says private landowners may hold the key to a healthy ecosystem. “Many Vermont deer parks—especially today—are primarily on private land, some on public land, but the majority of deer winter on private Vermont land. It’s really up to the private landowners in Vermont to protect these habitats and help us manage them,” he said.

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“We know that with climate change and things getting warmer, having connected landscapes and connected habitats – the full spectrum of all habitats – is really important. And this is where Vermont plays a crucial role in New England, providing connectivity in the region. We spend a lot of time in these areas and we talk about deer, but these are also vital to a number of other animals throughout the year,” Shortsleeve said.

A glimpse into the future of how one of Vermont’s iconic creatures is surviving the winter.

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