Cold weather can be stressful, but western Kansas deer and antelope are coping

HAYS – Ice and snow has covered the ground in western Kansas for more than a month in some places, and there have been some problems and concerns associated with wildlife in the region. However, mortality in deer and antelope due to winter weather is not generally a factor in Kansas populations, even when the weather is considered severe by human standards.

“We’ve received complaints about deer damaging hay stacks and feed bales,” Steve Price, regional wildlife supervisor, said. “Department staff are busy delivering Zon guns throughout the region and working with landowners to suggest other options to discourage further losses. Fortunately, the latest storm missed western Kansas, so conditions out here are gradually improving at this point.”
Zon guns are portable propane cannons that emit loud noises periodically that scare the deer away from a specific area. Price said the problems were most severe a couple of weeks ago, but as snow has receded in much of the region, deer are beginning to scatter in some areas, finding waste grain and natural food. There have been no reports of starvation or deaths of big game animals due to the weather. Smaller wildlife may have a more difficult time during extended snow cover, and there have been reports of dead pheasants.

“Deer and pronghorn antelope are adapted to survive on the Great Plains,” said KDWP big game biologist Lloyd Fox. “They are ruminants and can consume relatively low quality forage and generate the energy they need to survive cold weather. Both species occupy and prosper in areas with a climate far colder than is traditionally seen in Kansas.”
Deer and pronghorn are mobile. Pronghorn congregate in large herds and drift across the high plains when a blizzard occurs. They move until they find an area where their chances of survival are better. That may be an area where the wind has blown the snow away and vegetation is exposed, and it may be many miles away. Deer, on the other hand, have knowledge and experience to locate areas that have the best winter forage and thermal protection for them. Deer often have winter home ranges that are miles away from their summer range and they travel back and forth between those areas establishing traditional movements and concentration spots. When the weather becomes severe they go to the winter range.

“Both of these species have physical adaptations that help them survive storms,” Fox explained. “First, their thick winter coats have hollow hairs, giving them excellent thermal qualities. And they also have the ability to adjust the blood flow to their extremities and allow those areas to cool while conserving heat in their core. They can then pulse warm blood through their extremities to keep them from freezing while minimizing the energy cost.”
The long-range weather forecast looks promising. While temperatures may be cold, sunshine will help melt snow cover, allowing animals to disperse away from concentration areas. Biologists do not consider any kind of artificial feeding program necessary, but they will continue to assist landowners who experience damage.