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Region's deer population endures rough winter

File Photo: A group of whitetail deer blend into their surroundings as they cautiously look out from the cover of a grove east of Worthington Thursday afternoon.

DUNDEE -- It was a difficult winter for wildlife in southwest Minnesota, and with the landscape finally starting to green up, the remnants of dead deer can be seen in road ditches and areas where herds had gathered.

In the area of Talcot Lake, one man reported seeing approximately 25 dead deer in one square mile. While that count is fairly high, the Department of Natural Resources' Area Wildlife Supervisor, Wendy Krueger, estimates a less than 10 percent death loss in the deer herd in the region.

"This is one of the toughest ones we've had in southwest Minnesota," said Krueger. "It wasn't quite as bad as 1996-1997."

"Basically, the whole southwest part of the state saw some degree of mortality," she added.

At the Talcot Wildlife Management Area, staff counted 14 dead deer -- 12 fawns that "weren't equipped to survive the winter," an adult buck and an adult doe, Krueger said.

As for the deaths, she said the numbers are "nothing alarming." It is, however, unfortunate, considering the DNR has been working to increase herd numbers the past couple of years.

Over to the east, in Cottonwood County, retired veterinarian Ron Kuecker was called out a couple of times this winter to inspect questionable deer deaths.

In one case, about a half dozen young, dead deer were discovered by a hunter just outside of Windom in January. Coordinating with the DNR office at Windom as a volunteer disease consultant, Kuecker did a post-mortem exam on the animals and attributed their deaths to enterotoxemia, a fatal intestinal toxemia caused by Clostridium perfringens, type A. The fast-acting disease -- animals typically die within 12 to 24 hours -- can be tied to three factors, including a high carbohydrate diet, presence of the infectious agent and a concentration of deer.

Young deer tend to be impacted most by the disease, said Kuecker, who has seen the toxemia impact deer herds -- some years worse than others -- for the past two decades.

"The first case I ever saw came from Talcot -- we know the particular agent is over there," he said. "It always happens in situations where there's a high corn diet. That doesn't mean the corn is killing them. It takes the right conditions."

This last winter, the snow depth covered up a lot of the plants deer depend on for survival.

At Talcot, Krueger said the food plots -- acres of corn -- were "pretty cleared out."

"There was a large food plot right behind the headquarters where they were grouped up, and then farther south by the dam area," she said. "They used them all. We were really fortunate that winter kind of quit the end of February -- that helped to not make it worse."

In addition to clearing out the corn plots, the deer did quite a bit of gnawing on trees and bushes at Talcot.

"They're browsers, they need that roughage," said Krueger. "They nipped quite a bit of the caragana (shrubs)."

Neither Krueger nor Kuecker suspect a lot of death loss to starvation.

"There could have been some loss due to the severe conditions -- the longstanding cold, wind chills and the heavy snow that covered up their food," said Kuecker. He estimated total death loss at maybe 5 percent of the herd in Cottonwood and Jackson counties.

Kuecker said the toxemia that affected the deer population does not pose any concerns for humans.

"This is a very acute death," he said. "Very seldom are animals seen showing symptoms."

Tracking numbers

Krueger said the DNR is working to get an estimate of the deer population in southwest Minnesota through a new pilot program launched in 2009 in Nobles County. The spotlight count has moved on to deer permit area 295, in Murray County, this year.

"You run a route and spotlight out of both sides of the vehicle and count deer," she explained. The DNR will run seven routes this year, compared to the 10 they did in Nobles County last year.

Spotlight counts began earlier this month and will continue until early May.

"We did do some aerial surveys earlier this winter at Talcot," Krueger said. "There were just over 400 deer that we counted."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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