Winter Season is Not Easy on Deer

Deer eat less, conserve energy

By Hilary Corrigan, The Bulletin Published Jan 6, 2017

Winter range critical for deer

Various winter range sites in Umatilla, Baker, Union, Grant, Wasco and Wallowa counties close to public access through winter and early spring. Closer to Bend, motorized vehicle use — including snowmobiles and electric bikes — is limited for the Cabin/Silver Lake, Metolius, Opine and Tumalo winter ranges from December until April.

For more information on winter ranges and closure maps, visit

Deer have it rough during the winter in Central Oregon.

“Basically, they’re starving to death,” said Corey Heath, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “And that’s normal.”

Photo courtesy of Brent McGregor

Photo courtesy of Brent McGregor

One vital survival factor for deer is access to areas where they won’t be disturbed.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Heath said.

The animals do not add weight through the season because they can’t take in enough calories due to a lack of food, which is covered by snow. They need to conserve energy until spring arrives.

So they head to lower elevations with less snow. They move less. They seek tree stands and other shelter from the wind, snowfall and cold temperatures. They eat what’s available, including bitterbrush, sagebrush, juniper and lichen hanging off trees. They also grow their thicker winter coats.

But disturbances from people can force deer to burn more vital calories, while also displacing them from a safe spot to areas where they face more challenges, including predators, vehicles and fences.

The wildlife department, along with federal agencies and private landowners, created certain winter range areas that are closed to public access so that deer have such spaces that can help them survive the hard season.

“Winters like this are tough on ’em,” Heath said, adding that people don’t have to make it tougher. “They’re gonna have a hard time.”

ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy noted that this winter is a normal one, although after six years of drought it may not seem that way. In the long term, the moisture from all the recent snow will help grow the forage that deer can eat later and use to fatten themselves up through the summer. That stored fat serves as insulation and as energy reserves for winter, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

The department advises against feeding deer, since the animal’s digestion adapts to the winter season and they can suffer from eating the wrong type of food at this time of year. If people want to give them something to eat, shaking the snow off of bushes and shrubs in the yard can help, Dennehy said.

Heath noted commercially available deer food but warned against corn-based feed that can stress their digestion and wind up killing them.

Some deer won’t survive the winter, and that’s part of the natural process. The department will conduct an annual statewide survey in the spring to gauge the winter’s toll.

Dennehy also stressed the need to protect areas within their winter range, so that people in vehicles or on foot don’t push them to move any more than they need to at a time when they’re vulnerable.

“That’s something that people can do to help — is realize they’re low on energy and need to conserve energy,” she said.