February 6, 2023

How Many Deer Die When Snows Are Deep? Or Maybe the Stories Are Deep

deerdeepsnowProbably a day doesn’t pass when weather “phenomenon” creates long discussions about big snowstorms, bad winters, hot summers, etc. And with the telling of each story the snow gets deeper, the winters colder and longer and summers so hot eggs were commonly fried on the sidewalk (who would really eat eggs cooked on the sidewalk?”

First and foremost, let’s not kid ourselves. Long and severe (subjective) winters, combined with other factors can raise hell with a deer herd. Many states have what they call a “Winter Severity Index”(WSI) and this index is not universal, therefore it adds more subjectivity and perspective to the actual events. Mind you, none of this changes the reality on the ground and deer die.

A WSI is determined by depth of snow, degree of cold and its persistence and the length of time such “severe” conditions persist. Generally speaking the longer a winter persist will probably have the most devastation. But there are other factors to consider and some of these circumstances are not calculated into the WSI.

For example, is there a predator factor? Often times deer will not survive a winter due to the onslaught of predators, like coyotes, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions and the mortality increase with the severity of the weather. What are the recorded conditions of the snow that would enable predators and deter prey? Is there a disease calculation? If deer are suffering from disease, surely it contributes to the mortality rate and ability to survive. What is the availability of habitat, including the browse available for deer to survive? We should also factor in human harassment, which I would lump in with domestic dogs chasing deer and, snowmobilers, shed hunters, etc.

As you can see it’s complex and yet doubtful that most people consider these things when they read media accounts that ask, “Will Winter Wipe Out Our Deer Herd?”

Deer are a remarkable animal and personally I don’t think people give this creature enough credit for its adaptability to changing conditions – man-caused and natural.

So, what’s this all leading up to? Thanks to a friend who sent me just about everything that is linked to in this article, we might be witness to a condition that is common where one piece of historic information is written and many after the fact repeat it.

I must repeat here again that I don’t know that my claim to historic repetition is true or not. I’m making an example of something readers might consider. And I certainly do not intend to diminish the reality that the conditions I’ve stated above, when in play, kill a lot of deer.

In Google Books, we find a book written by Sidney Perley and published in 1891. The title is “Historic Storms of New England“, Salem Press Publishing and Printing.

The Outdoor Life article references this year’s winter snow depths and severity for the New England Region. In a subsequent email I received a link to an article discussing The Great Snow of 1717 in which over a prolonged period at the end of February and into March of 1717, 5 feet of snow fell on New York and New England regions, making the claim that, “…95 percent of all the deer in many parts of New England died during or after this storm.” I doubted the claim.

The Mother Nature Network cited Wikipedia as the source of this information. For those of you who have followed my writings, should have by now, figured out I’m not a huge fan of Wikipedia to find sound, accurate and reliable information. That doesn’t mean I don’t use it. I use it for simple references. For issues that require lots of research, I might use it as a starting point. Wikipedia is a good resource providing users understand its reliability and purpose.

If readers take the time to examine the Wikipedia information, they will discover that some of the information used for this page came from, you guessed it, the book I referenced above by Sidney Perley. So, I think we can say that here we have a case, at least to some degree, of repeating one person’s “historic” account. (Note: The Wikipedia page does include other citations. Please don’t think I’m suggesting it was the only source.)

So let’s look at Sidney Perley’s historic account of what was going on during the Winter of 1716-1717. Perley writes, beginning on Page 33:

Many cattle were buried in the snow, where they were smothered or starved to death. Some were found dead weeks after the snow had melted, yet standing and with all the appearance of life. The eyes of many were so glazed with ice that being near the sea they wandered into the water and were drowned.

The author goes on to tell about wild animals stating that the deep snows caused the animals to be “robbed of their means of subsistence” and they starved. In addition he says the deer seemed to move nearer to the coast hoping to find some food.

But it wasn’t just starvation killing the deer. The author writes:

Bears and wolves were numerous then, and as soon as night fell, in their ravenous state they followed the deer in droves into the clearings, at length pouncing upon them.

Getting back to the domestic animals, the author states:

Bears, wolves and foxes were nightly visitors to the sheep pens of the farmers.

Unless things were different back in 1717, bears probably were not up waiting for night to fall so they could visit the sheep pens, nor were they following deer into the clearings and “at length pouncing on them”. Bear hibernate.

Now, it’s possible that bears can come out of hibernation early if, the spring comes early. We hear of this event quite often. However, upon reading further we discover that the winter began difficult and remained that way culminating in this multi-day snow event that dumped 5 feet of snow in some areas.

I would also like to point out the difficulty I am having with the statement Perley made where he said, “Some were found dead weeks after the snow had melted, yet standing and with all the appearance of life. The eyes of many were so glazed with ice that being near the sea they wandered into the water and were drowned.” This is bordering a bit toward tall tales and damned lies.

I know that my grandfather walked to school 15 miles, uphill (both ways) through all kinds of weather and that today we have all become soft cry babies. However, I was of the ripe old age of 16 and living in Maine, when record snowfall occurred in much of Maine and New England. I think that record snowfall must mean that it surpassed the snows of the Winter of 1716-1717…but then again bears didn’t hibernate in 1717, so it’s difficult to say.

The take away here is that for me, I see this as a teaching moment. I love history and I read it often. In my latest book, “Wolf: What’s to Misunderstand?” I include lots of historic accounts and went out of my way to include some that most readers would find as tall tales and damned lies. There’s some truth in there somewhere.

Through this teaching moment about historic accounts, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact of what nature can bestow upon us, our domestic animals and wildlife. It can be harsh. But sometimes the embellishing of reality makes for great entertainment. The chore becomes to separate fact from fiction within a document.

I am extremely grateful to my good friend for sending me this information. I read and enjoyed every bit of it and put it all in what I think is a sound perspective for myself.