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MADISON — State wildlife officials are keeping a close eye on how the harsh winter is affecting the state’s deer herd and are asking the public to report any observations of deer deaths.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said Friday that state wildlife managers are not yet recording any deer die-offs, but they are seeing deer that are struggling to find food.

“Right now, we’re seeing deer bunch up, deer come into town, people wanting to feed deer,” Wallenfang said. “There are reports of predators honing in on areas where deer are feeding.”

Wallenfang said the snow and cold each present their own challenges for deer in Marathon County and other parts of the state.

“If it’s very, very cold out and there’s no snow on the ground, they’ll probably be just fine,” Wallenfang said. “If it’s warm out, but there’s 3 feet of snow on the ground and they can’t get to the ground, or reach the trees, then you have a problem.”

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Crusted snow also creates problems for deer, Wallenfang said, because deer will break through the crust but predators such as coyotes, wolves and bobcats can stay on top of it.

Justin Steinke, store manager at Shay Creek Sports in Rothschild, said he hasn’t heard of any deer deaths in Marathon County, but that’s not the case further north.

“I’m hearing from loggers up north that are starting to find deer dead,” he said. “I haven’t heard anything locally of people finding (dead) deer, but I have heard of people locally finding turkeys. One guy found nine turkeys that had perished.”

DNR biologists monitor the effects of winter weather on the deer herd by using an index that uses a combination of low temperatures and deep snows to gauge winter stress levels. A point is given for each day the temperature falls below zero degrees; a point also is given if the snow depth is more than 18 inches.

Winter conditions are considered mild if the station accumulates fewer than 50 points, moderate if between 51 and 80 points, severe if between 81 and 100, and very severe if more than 100.

“The index is not a perfect measurement of winter severity, but it gives us a pretty good gauge of what to expect,” Wallenfang said.

Wallenfang said locations such as Bayfield and Douglas counties already are into the “severe” range with plenty of winter left.

As of Friday, Wallenfang said Antigo had an index of 54 and Park Falls checked in at 70.

“But they have 25 inches of snow on the ground and it’s supposed to be below zero for the next 10 days, so that’s 20 points in the next two weeks,” he said.

Wallenfang said the harsh winter comes on the heels of the 2012-13 winter, which didn’t start with a lot of snow, but had significant snows and cold weather lasting well into May.

“This is not what we were hoping for,” he said.

Bob Dohr can be reached at 715-845-0660. Find him on Twitter as @BobDohr1.

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