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Blizzards test the capacity of wildlife

February 5, 2011

WINTER attacked with a vengeance this week. It was a little reminder to people that Mother Nature always calls the shots. She wins, we must adapt. Strong winds and heavy snow fall combined to give us humans a taste of real winter, one of those storms we can remember for a long time. Even so, this was 'short' storm that blew itself eastward in a relatively short period of time. In the meantime, plenty of travel problems were created for man and wildlife.

This scribe recalls the April 1973 winter blizzard in Iowa of big snow and super strong winds. This three day event did not want to quit. When it finally subsided, my home had a continuos snow drift on its roof that reached all the way to the ground without a break. To look out one of the windows was impossible. Only snow against the glass was visible.

Going way back in history, written accounts of the blizzards (more than one) and lots of snow were the norm for the winter of 1856-57. Dr. James Dinsmore's book titled A Country So Full of Game notes that the severe winter of 1856-57 was disasterous for elk and other wildlife. It all started with a blizzard on Dec. 1 that left the state covered in deep snow. A few days later, freezing rain fell that formed a crust on the surface. Big animals such as deer and elk sought refuge in timbered river bottoms and stream corridors.

Article Photos

The flaming red color of a cardinal catches human attention while the bird greets each new day with good cheer. Even after us humans had to dig ourselves out of big snow drifts and mumble about the weather, the Cardinal takes it all in stride as a year round resident. Both male and female cardinals sing all year long. However, it will not be long before the male of the species will be at the top of any nearby tree proclaiming his territory.  Birds know that spring is coming as each day grows longer.

The mid-1800s was also a time when settlers had filtered into Iowa. So when the fate of wildlife caught in conditions that prevented their escape was observed, it was an opportunity to exploit. At that time, an elk or any large wild mammal for that matter, was a gift, fresh meat that one did not have to raise or purchase. It was shot, butchered and saved to eat on for many weeks into the future. Helpless in deep snow with a hard crust at the surface, elk were virtually helpless to escape.

The historical record of the demise of elk in Iowa makes an interesting map. Beginning in the mid 1830s in southeast Iowa, elk were slowly pushed out or killed as settlement moved west. Zones of extripation took place is successive waves all the way to northwest Iowa where the last documented wild elk were observed (or killed) in 1871. For central Iowa, the last wild elk were noted in Tama County in 1857, Grundy in 1856, Hardin in 1853 and Story in 1852. Marshall County must have had elk during this same time frame. However a written record of our last elk is lacking.

Elk antlers become exposed occasionally along the banks of area streams. As high water flows each spring and erodes the bank, soil is lost along the undulating curves of the watercourse. To the attentive eye, fragments of antlers or bones may stick out from their centuries old tomb of earth. Bison skulls, skeletal parts and elk antlers are just some of the items that may see daylight after many centuries of buried solitude. It is proof of the wildlife legacy that once existed on the extensive wide open prairies of Iowa.


FARM PONDS may develop oxygen shortages during hard winters that can impact fish. It happens when surface ice is covered by thick snow. No sunlight means little to no photosynthesis by aquatic plants. If the plants die, they give off no oxygen. Low oxygen levels affect the bottom dwelling larger fish first and rarely affect all the smaller fish. Even though some fish may be lost each year, it is rare tha a farm pond will have a complete kill. Ponds with at least 25 percent of its volume at 10 feet of depth or more will allow fish to survive.


A WILD GAME FEED will be the draw for members and guests of the Izaak Walton League when they meet next Wednesday evening, Feb. 9, at the Fisher Community Center in Marshalltown. Many assortments of home cooked potluck dishes of duck or deer, fish or fowl will be on the tables for people to select from. The food is always good, examples of wild game well prepared for human consumption. Time for the event is approximately 6:30 p.m.


Deer harvest numbers statewide show that more than 127,000 deer were taken by hunters during the 2010-11 seasons. Deer biologists will be crunching the data soon and evaluating trend lines for the overall management of the deer herd. More Iowa counties are meeting management goals. Future hunting pressure strategies will be focused on areas where deer numbers still need to come down. For the past season, the doe deer take was 65,176 and antlered deer were tallied at 46,934. Button bucks, those little guys with only bumps on their skulls, came in at 13,146. Statewide, 1,814 bucks that had lost their antlers (shed antlered bucks) were taken. Taking more doe deer is the key to control of the deer herd and hunters have cooperated. Marshall County deer hunters took 917 deer.


The Bear Grove Chapter of WHITETAILS UNLIMITED will hold their membership appreciation and awards program/banquet on Feb. 19 at the KC Hall in Marshalltown. Ticket costs are $40 per adult, and $20 for a spouse or child. Great food, great silent auction and live auction items and door prizes including some fine sporting arms will be in the offering. Tickets are available from Ron Wacome 496-5404, Dennis Balmer 474-2385, Tim Shibe 485-6448, Brad Wall 366-3269, Doug Cowan 751-7996 or Brad Larson 507-363-2824.


DEER ANTLER MEASURING programs are coming up soon. At the Grundy County Heritage Museum in Morrison, Iowa on Feb. 19 from 9a.m. until 2 p.m. Official scorers will be available to help put the tape to the antlers of deer in that region. The Marshall County deer scoring event will be Feb. 22 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Conservation Center at the GrimesFarm.


Iowa's big draw for over 25,000 people each year is the IOWA DEER CLASSIC in Des Moines on Feb. 25 -27. This is a huge undertaking for the show production people. If it is related to deer in Iowa, it will be there. The economic impact of this one species of wildlife to the state is immense. Big name attractions will be there plus great seminars, food and equipment displays. Deer mounts from the past year will be on display on the Hall of Fame Wall. Put these dates on your calender as a must see.


Wit or wisdom: Most of the stuff people worry about, ain't never going to happen anyway.


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 PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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