We have all traveled in and around villages, towns and cities. We know about side streets connecting to Main Street. We are aware of heavy traffic areas and lesser-used byways. We find different routes, according to whether we are going to work and returning home, or just browsing. It is no different, with deer.
I have lived, camped and hunted within the boundaries of a winter deer yard for the greater part of forty-eight years in my life, and have watched deer go about their business there. Deer yards truly resemble our towns and cities, and deer use them as we do our own territories, to their own advantage. They establish the easiest ways to get around, from good cover to good cover, to gain access to good feed.
Deer begin to gather in the winter yards from mid-November onward, depending upon weather conditions. Snow accumulations bring them together in numbers varying from a dozen to thousands. The sheer numbers are necessary to open up the runways--their trails—that permit them to move around in their search for food and cover. The trampled-down runways also help them to evade predators like wolves, lynx, bobcats, coyotes, and domestic dogs whenever farms or villages are close.
When snows are deep and winters long and cold, the deer have a tough time keeping the runways open, and this causes them a lot of problems—just as we have troubles in cities when the plows can’t keep up with the snow. When deer are trapped by snow in a winter yard, when they have browsed everything they can reach, they start losing strength, and are less able to keep the trails open, further restricting their access to food. There is starvation and death. They are not able to get to new feeding areas and good cover. Their predators have an easier time, as they can run on top of the snow that deer will flounder through.
In the swamps, the deer eat the lower branches from white cedar trees. The branches are cropped up to a 7- or 8-foot level, so that they look like they have been trimmed. The ground beneath is often flat, the snow packed down, obliterating the runways. Only the tall deer can feed, stretching up on their hind legs and extending their necks.
The deer die in great numbers—big, healthy bucks who lost tremendous amounts of weight during the rut, just don’t make it. Fawns during their first winter need great luck to survive. A sixty percent kill is not unusual. Mature does lose all mothering instincts, and only the strong survive.
The coming of spring brings relief. Toward the end of March, with the snow melt, green appears in nearby fields, and the deer can make it out of the swamps to gather on the first patches of new feed. They are scrawny, with patchy fur and hipbones standing out. There could be fifty or more in any field. They will pick at anything they can find that might sustain them. Some small ones will die at this time—spring has come too late for them. Making it through the tough winter has left them too weak to recover. Malnutrition and injuries make it easy for predators and domestic dogs to get to them. The date that deer leave the winter grounds is more or less around April 15. One day there are a hundred, and the next day they are gone. I cannot say how far they go, but my feeling is that it is probably one to fifteen miles from where I have seen them in the winter.