Winter is crunch time for wildlife

WINTER in Iowa can guarantee two things: Cold and Snow. The question will be how any winter compares to past winters. Water cooler discussions at the office may revolve around how this winter will fair compared to an average winter. Average is a hard thing to define since every winter will have its storms, snows, warm spells, wind and freezing air temperatures. One has to look at long term averages over decades of time, or more, to grasp the wide range of Iowa winter statistics. From that one may be able to pick out similarities that define an “average” winter.

There have been many mild winters in our past partly defined by not a lot of snow, temperatures cold by not many times of below zero night time lows, few big storms and maybe even rainfall instead of snow. The flip side of this coin are those winters when the bottom seems to have dropped out of the thermometer for long periods of time, lots of deep heavy snow events, lots of wind and our first fall snows in late October never melting until April of next year. Iowa has been there and done that innumerable times in its past and long before any humans, Indians or settlers, were living on this prairie landscape.

A late uncle of mine from my home stomping grounds of Bremer County, when we visited about the very hot prolonged droughts of the 1930s, lamented on how hard it was to work on the farm during chore time, and in the fields daily with hopes that the crops would not dry up. He was a teen age boy at the time, fit and strong, and instilled with a work ethic that was ingrained from former generations. Sleeping at night inside the big square farm house upper rooms was not fun either.

Windows were opened to hopefully catch any night-time breeze. It was so hot in every room, that laying on the linoleum floor without sheets or blankets was the coolest option available. Most farm folks suffered equally trying to cope with the heat as best they could.

When I asked how the winter weather patterns were during those same 1930s, he said brutal. To get from the farm house to the barn, deep snows required a shoveled pathway, and in some cases tunnels through big drifts, to get to the cows waiting in the barn. Farm chores were made worse by bad weather. At least in the barn the wind could not enter and body heat off the cattle kept the interior warmer relative to the outside.

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An example of severe winter weather went into the record books in 1856-57. It was a disaster for elk and other wildlife. A blizzard on Dec. 1, 1856 brought heavy snow cover to all of Iowa. Then a few days later, warmer air brought rain. It froze on contact and left a thick crust on the deep snow surface. Many wildlife species including numerous elk found survival very difficult. These animals fought their way through deep snow to seek shelter anywhere they could which was primarily along wooded stream and river corridors. That is where elk encountered settlers.

Settlers watched what was happening to the stranded elk. And knowing that stranded elk were easy pickings for killing and obtaining meat, took advantage of the situation. Many elk were slaughtered but not wasted. The meat was used to feed hungry people. Meat quarters hung off tree limbs attracted wolves during the night. Coyotes, foxes and bobcats were hungry also and they grabbed what they could. Where scavengers were able to reach high hung meat, nothing was left in the morning. In some cases, stranded elk were killed with a heavy axe blow to the head. Whatever meat was needed for the day was cut off and taken back to the homestead.

In 1857, the Iowa Legislature established a closed season for elk from Feb. 1 to July 15. A fine of $15 was set for each illegally possessed elk. The next year the closed season was started earlier on Jan. 1. In 1862, elk were not to be taken between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1. There is no evidence that this law was enforced. By the 1870s, elk were extirpated from Iowa. Complete lawful protection of elk came in 1898, but that was 27 years after this wild species was gone.

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From Dr. James J. Dinsmore’s book “A Country So Full of Game,” he recalls attempts by settlers and others to “improve” and supplement native wildlife species with the introduction of non-native critters. The Ring-necked Pheasant was one experiment that worked. Unfortunately so did the house sparrow and the European starling. Iowa’s prairie landscape changed fast from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Tall grass prairie had black land dirt under its roots. Black land dirt could grow crops very well as we are aware. As prairie grasses lost the race for cultivation, native prairie chickens disappeared. The niches they formerly lived well in were gone.

The introduced Ring-necked pheasant could cope with and did adapt to small farm agriculture in a most successful way. This species made its way to America from China in the 1700s with releases in New Jersey about 1790. The biggest success however was on the west coast in 1881 with the release of 28 birds into the Willamette Valley of Oregon. In 10 years time, there were plenty of pheasants and hunting them became popular. Pen-raised pheasants were sold and moved to many places in western states and into the Midwest. Iowa had a large private game farm near Cedar Falls where pheasants were bred and raised. In 1900 or 1901, a big windstorm blew down this farm’s fences. About 2,000 ring-necks escaped. This accidental “stocking” of game birds helped set the stage for the expansion of ring-necks. Other game farms allowed for the release of some of their stock from Keokuk County in 1904, Kossuth County in 1907 and O’Brien County in 1908. Pheasants were now well established.

Winter weather can be fickle indeed. A bad storm system in 1975 hit northwest Iowa especially hard. Biologists estimated that 75-80 percent in that area of the state perished as a result of that blizzard. It took several years for recovery to take place by the hardy pheasant. All wildlife has its limits. We know that habitat is essential for birds like pheasants. Good grassland cover, cattail marshes and brushy fencerow cover helps. Mild winters with less than 30 inches of snow helps. A transition to Spring without freezing rains helps. Relatively warm and dry spring weather helps. Food plots planted specifically for game birds helps. Only time will tell if Mother Nature listened to us … or if she decided to put the crunch into our 2016-17 winter. We will only know how to compare our winter with past events next April.

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WINTER CAMPING, in a nice simple cabin in a state park may be what you can do to break the winter time blues. Several state park sites have cabins to rent where solitude can be experienced. Trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing are less crowded. Nearby lakes offer fishing through the ice for crappie or bluegill. Local state parks with cabins to rent can be found at Pine Lake in Hardin County or Union Grove State Park. During winter these cabins are available for minimum two day stays for $35 per day. Depending upon cabin size, accommodations range from two people to ten. Reservations for cabins at these state parks or other parks can be checked out online at iowastateparks.reserveamerica.com or call 1-800-427-2757.

Year-round cabins are available at Backbone, Black Hawk, Honey Creek, Honey Creek Resort, Lake Darling, Lake of Three Fires, Lake Wapello, Pine Lake, Springbrook, Union Grove and Waubonsie state parks.

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Today is the last day for CHRISTMAS TREE sales at the local Izaak Walton League. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cut your own fresh tree for $35. Izaak Walton conservation programs will benefit. Of a matter of advanced planning, new trees will be planted next spring to eventually replace the ones cut this year. It takes about seven years to grow a tree. Having all stages of tre sizes is what the Ikes strive for. Merry Christmas to everyone.

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“Don’t be afraid of missing opportunities. Behind every failure is an opportunity somebody wishes they had missed.”

— Jane Wagner,

writer and director


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at P.O. Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.