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Whitetail Deer Rely on Quality Winter Habitat

Come April, white-tailed deer in the northern states have gone through their worst hard time. Prolonged severe winter weather is the most taxing time in a whitetail’s life, particularly at the edges of their northernmost range. Does will soon give birth—if they haven’t starved.

To get through this demanding period, whitetails “yard up” or congregate in unique deer winter habitats. They gather in groups, not for food but to escape biting winds and deep snow. In Vermont, for example, it is not uncommon for the winter mercury to drop below zero for more than 50 days throughout the season. Add a foot and a half of snow on the ground with piercing wind chills, and one can see that winter habitat management is critical.


Taxes paid by firearms, ammunition, and archery manufacturers via the Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson), fund state fish and wildlife agencies’ scientific population surveys and habitat management. That means ensuring the existence of robust stands of softwoods in sufficient size and frequency and proper locale to shelter white-tailed deer through the coldest part of the year.

“During winter, whitetails migrate to important habitats for relief from deep snow and cold temperatures,” said John Austin, Land & Habitat Program manager with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. “Stands of softwood trees such as eastern hemlock, red spruce, balsam fir, white pine, and white cedar, particularly on south-facing slopes where the sun creates favorable microclimates, provide critical habitat for deer to survive winter conditions. Softwood tree branches capture snow overhead, making it easier for deer to get around, find food and avoid predators. Their reliance on this important winter habitat concerns energy conservation rather than energy consumption. Deer in the northern part of their range depend on conserving energy stored during the summer and fall when food is abundant.”

Ryan Robicheau, Wildlife Management Section Supervisor with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, agrees. “Whitetails in winter are basically in starvation mode this far north when they can’t access herbaceous plants under the snow cover. Winter foods are not nourishing, and deer focus on conserving energy.”

Forest management is deer management. Prescribed fire regenerates winter deer habitat in Michigan. Photo Credit: Michigan DNR

In northern Michigan, the situation is not a great deal different. According to Steve Chadwick, Assistant Chief of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the winter period in the upper peninsula and top of the Michigan mitten is severe and long-lasting. More importantly, forest habitat is essential to deer survival, according to Chadwick. “Stands of lowland cedar trees and other conifers let deer get out of the wind and deep snow,” said Chadwick. “Regarding deer management, we have used Pittman-Robertson dollars over time to buy land and manage it for deer wintering habitat, which has been crucial to our success.”

Pittman-Robertson is the source of funding for adding to wildlife management areas in Maine, as well. Robicheau says his agency has put great effort into acquiring winter deer habitats. This spring, the agency expects to add 10,000 acres to its existing 120,000 acres of WMAs. That’s substantial, says Robicheau, in a state comprised of primarily private lands. “Deer are the priority species on these lands, but so many other wildlife benefits, too: songbirds and furbearers such as martin, fisher, coyote, and bobcat. Hunters, birders, and trappers’ benefit, as well.”

Habitat conservation is front and center in Vermont, according to Austin. “Maintaining deer winter habitat is a vital factor in managing our herd. We use Pittman-Robertson dollars to map habitat regularly, so we know what we have and can manage accordingly,” said Austin. “Vermont is 75 percent forested, so deer management is closely tied to good forest management, including selective thinning to create gaps and forest regeneration. While the Vermont landscape is largely forested, only nine percent of that area supports deer winter habitat, making it all the more important that we carefully manage and protect those areas. Pittman-Robertson funds are essential to wildlife management—those dollars make it happen.”

In 2023, Vermont received $7.1 million; Michigan $34.6 million; and Maine $13.2 million in Wildlife Restoration funding, all derived from federal excise taxes. To utilize these funds, state fish and wildlife agencies must match them by 25 percent with non-federal funds, usually generated through the sales of hunting licenses.

By Craig Springer, USFWS—Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration


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