A thick blanket of snow on the ground practically for the entire winter in Northwest Indiana is placing the lives of deer and other forms of wildlife at risk by making it more challenging to uncover food.
Local wildlife experts said the effect from one of the most brutal winters in recent memory won't be known until the snow melts or whenever springs decides to arrive.
But, one thing is for certain, Mother Nature is leaving many forms of wildlife stressed.
"It may be spring when we get people out mushroom hunting or in the spring when people go out for walks before they actually find the carcasses of the animals that died from the severe winter that we've had this year," said Gene Davis, a conservation officer with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources office in Michigan City.
There's already evidence in some areas that animals are becoming hungry and looking for alternative food sources above the ground.
Browse lines have been spotted in many areas where animals like deer, squirrel and rabbits have eaten the tiny limbs or buds off trees — especially saplings.
"When the going gets tough, all wildlife, they improvise," said Tim Morgan, superintendent of the LaPorte County Parks Department.
Morgan said browse lines are marked by areas where the tips of trees like evergreens have been chewed off and turned brown.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore spokesman Bruce Rowe said deer have an especially tough time, using lots of energy burrowing into snow looking for food.
So, deer turn to things above the ground like tree bark and buds off trees, which are less nutritious than the nuts and other food readily available on the ground if not for the deep snow cover.
"They may not have enough food for the energy they're using working through the deep snow," Rowe said.
Relief should not come from human hands and could make animals worse off in the long run.
For example, animals like wild turkeys or deer can become too dependent on humans and lose their survival instincts until winter decides to release its grip, Davis said.
And, soon, animals start congregating at doorsteps, leaving well-meaning people feeling obligated or overwhelmed to feed every mouth.
"If you start to feed them, then you are committed to continue to feed them until the weather breaks," Davis said.
Another danger is food given out might not be ideal from a nutrition stand point or even hazardous to the health of wildlife.
"Sometimes if you put certain types of food out there this time of year, you can actually do them more harm than you do them good," he said.
The bitter cold also tends to sap the energy in many animals, and the strength they have left is used to burrow deeper into thick blankets of snow for any food that might be underneath.
Some animals, like squirrels, in the fall build up reserves of acorns and other food, or they build up enough fat for their bodies to feed on during the cold weather months.
"A lot of our game animals as well as our nongame animals are just having a really tough time this year," Davis said.
The heavy snow cover could result in a heavy fish kill come spring.
Morgan said heavy snow on frozen lakes prevents sunlight from penetrating to plants and other vegetation on the bottom.
Therefore, plants are unable to convert sunlight into oxygen as they normally do, and over time fish start to die off, he said.
Morgan said the harsh winter is no reason for animal lovers to panic, though.
"You might have some fatalities, for sure, but it all cycles and generates. Mother Nature has a way of maintaining a constant flux of populations where you have peak years followed by decreased years followed by peak years," Morgan said. "If you had populations that constantly increased we'd all be in trouble."