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Doug Leier, Published February 07 2012

Leier: Mild winter has been a good thing for ND wildlife

Fargo - Winter officially began in December, and except for a few days of normal cold, it didn’t even feel like winter throughout January. Except for people who thrive on snow activities, and businesses that cater to them, most of us have breathed a sigh of relief that we aren’t having a fourth straight hard Midwest winter that seemingly lasts six months.

The mild start to winter is just what the doctor ordered for wildlife as well. Late winter or spring storms are still a threat, especially to pheasants, but to this point North Dakota’s resident wildlife is not nearly so stressed as the last three years. There’s still more stress than in fall, but winter mortality is likely minimal so far.

While winter’s positive benefits for wildlife have generated a lot of attention, the real good news is also coming from the fishing side of things. While ice formation on most lakes is not as far along as it normally is this time of year, ice anglers are making up for lost time.

Instead of drifted over county roads and plugged section line trails leading to favorite fishing waters, anglers can get to a just about every lake in the state this winter. Lakes aren’t clogged with snow, so anglers can explore a bit as ice conditions permit.

Fishing has been good so far, according to Greg Power, fisheries chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and it’s “probably only going to get better.”

Another benefit of an open winter like we’re experiencing this year, is a break from a threat of winterkill on lakes. Over the past three years more than sixty lakes suffered at least partial winterkill of fish because of prolonged, deep snow cover.

Winterkill is a common threat in plains states, Power says. It typically happens when snow comes early and piles up on the ice, blocking light penetration to underwater plants. Without light, the plants don’t grow and produce oxygen. When the plants die, they also use oxygen in the decaying process.

Sometimes the water’s dissolved oxygen falls to a level that no longer supports fish. No matter what happens the rest of the winter, Power says it’s likely late enough that even widespread heavy snows would not create much danger for winterkill.

“A winter like this,” he said, “where now we’re into February and we have virtually no snow on most of the lakes, is absolutely great news, especially coming off the past few.”

If there is any downside to an open winter, it’s a lack of potential spring runoff typically needed to recharge our prairie lakes and reservoirs. Power says it wouldn’t hurt to get a little snow the rest of the winter so there’s some runoff, but most lakes are full so one year without much runoff isn’t much of a concern. “Collectively, there’s a lot of water on our landscape,” he said.

And all that water is currently growing pike, perch and walleye populations that should mean good fishing, both winter and summer, for several years to come.

Leier, a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at dleier@nd.gov

Leier’s blog can be found online

at www.areavoices.com