Wildlife, especially northern wildlife, exhibit a number of adaptations to snow: pelage changes, hibernation, migration and physical adaptations, among a few. Today we’ll discuss how wildlife cope with some of the harshest weather they’ll face all year.
Snow becomes denser and harder as time goes by (the snow ages). This aging and hardening process is called firnification. Some characteristics of snow that are important to wildlife are:
- Temperature: Temperatures in a snowpack vary with depth. Snow has excellent insulating qualities and exhibits relatively stable temperatures. Animals take advantage of temperature characteristic of snow, for example, ptarmigan burrow in snow and big game make snow beds.
- Density: Density provides an index to the compaction of snow crystals in a snowpack. Snow density increases with firnification. E.g., impact of snow density on caribou feeding in Alaska.
- Hardness (“Load”): This reflects the degree of bonding between snow crystals. Along with density, hardness is a measure of the strength of a snowpack – or its ability to support weight.
- Of particular importance when looking at wildlife and snow, is the depth to which an animal will sink into the snow or “weight load on track” E.g., wolf = weight on track of caribou or reindeer; lynx = less weight on track than bobcat; snowshoe hare = less than cottontail
- Snow Depth: Snows of certain depths will cause big game to concentrate in specific areas within their home range. For example, “deer yards” where deer may stay in these “yards” up to 5 months, which can have a dramatic impact on vegetation!
While weather unfortunately, is out of any managers control, there are a few things you can do to help your animals make it through. One such trick, which we use commonly, is to provide some helpful, mostly snow-free cover. We do this by selecting a relatively large cedar tree, we then cut it pretty high up on the trunk (say shoulder or waist height), but not completely through, and letting it fall over; this creates a shelter of sorts, where the ground is protected due to the foliage and the trunk is still elevated – like a sideways teepee!
All types of animals utilize these trees (such a quail and small mammals, even deer) as it provides a protected, wind and snow free place to seek shelter. Its a no-cost way to provide for your wildlife. Keep in mind, these techniques, especially this one in particular, isn’t just for large tracts of land. You can do the same in your backyard – stack up a few branches or plywood, and if you’re feeling extra generous you can throw some straw or dead leaves in as well. Its great for kids and adults alike to see who can make this a home!