Where do Vermont deer spend their winter?

BRUNSWICK, Vt. – The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have completed surveys in northeast Vermont to identify areas used by white-tailed deer during winter. The results, expected later this year, will inform habitat management on state and federal lands, as well as population objectives for deer.

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Where do white-tailed deer winter? Photo provided by Vermont Fish and Wildlife

Vermont winters can be tough on deer, leading to the death of one out of every five deer during severe winters in some areas. Biologists consider winter severity to be the primary factor limiting the size of northern deer populations. Deep snow and cold temperatures drive deer to seek out conifer stands that are dense enough to reduce wind and the amount of snow on the ground. Deer also need nearby areas that provide more food.

The survey is the most intensive effort to survey winter areas for deer since the 1980s. The three-month project began in January, covering 131 square kilometers across seven towns, Wenlock and West Mountain Wildlife Management Areas, and the Nulhegan Basin Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The towns include Bloomfield, Brighton, Brunswick, Ferdinand, Lemington, Lewis, and Maidstone.

Local volunteers, including about 75 residents and a class from North Country Union High School, helped complete more than 60 percent of the surveys.

“Through this project, we connected with hundreds of landowners and concerned citizens about a species that many people are passionate about,” said Steve Agius, Nulhegan Basin Division refuge manager. “The data from the 2020 deer yard survey will inform future habitat management, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s goal of working with partners to manage healthy forests and abundant wildlife.”

Vermont Fish and Wildlife project leader Nick Fortin points at deer tracks.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife project leader Nick Fortin points at deer tracks. Photo by Meagan Racey, United States Fish and Wildlife Services

Biologists once considered the Nulhegan Basin in the Northeast Kingdom to be the largest deer wintering area in the state, at one time providing winter cover for as many as 1,000 deer. However, biologists, landowners, and hunters suspect that changes in habitat and other factors have caused deer to now migrate further east toward the Connecticut River and New Hampshire.

“The results from this survey will help us understand which areas deer are currently using during the winter, and perhaps provide some insight into why that pattern has changed over time,” said Nick Fortin, deer project leader for Vermont Fish and Wildlife. “Knowing where deer overwinter, the quality of the habitat, and how deer are using it will help us keep the local deer herd stable, healthy, and in balance with available habitat.”

The surveyed areas include land from the 1998 sale of 132,000 acres from paper and wood producer Champion International Corporation. Efforts by many groups led to the establishment of the 26,000-acre Nulhegan Basin Division and the 22,000-acre West Mountain Wildlife Management Area, both of which offer on and off-trail recreation opportunities, including snowmobiling, hunting, fishing, hiking, and bird watching. The remaining 84,000 acres were purchased by a private timber company, now Weyerhaeuser. The combination of ownerships, with varying yet complementary mandates, provides long-term conservation of important wildlife habitat as well as the preservation of traditional uses of the land.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

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