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Natural Heritage Elements - Species Level

Deer Wintering Areas  


                 White-tailed deer in Vermont live near the northern limit of their range in eastern North America . To cope with Vermont 's severe climatic conditions, deer have developed a survival mechanism that relies upon the use, access, and availability of winter habitat. These habitat areas are known as deer wintering areas, deer winter habitat or, more commonly, 'deer yards.' Deer winter habitat is defined as areas of mature or maturing softwood cover, with aspects tending towards the south, southeast, southwest, or even westerly and easterly facing slopes.   



                 Deer wintering areas vary in size from a few acres to over a hundred acres and provide essential relief to deer from winter conditions. These areas of softwood cover provide protection from deep snow, cold temperatures, and wind. They provide a dense canopy of softwood trees, a favorable slope and aspect (mentioned above), generally moderate elevation, and low levels of human disturbance in winter. The softwood species that compose these areas are most commonly hemlock and white pine in the southern part of the state, and white cedar, spruce, and fir in the north. Energy loss by deer inhabiting these sites is minimized, and survival is favored in deer wintering areas. Wintering areas do not change significantly between years and can be used by generations of deer over many decades if appropriate habitat conditions are maintained. Deer annually migrate, often several miles, from fall habitats to wintering areas. A single wintering area often serves deer from large areas of a town and in some cases from surrounding towns as well. Residential, commercial, or industrial development within or adjacent to a deer wintering area decreases the amount of winter habitat available to deer and has an effect on an area's deer population, eventually reducing the number of deer within the area. Without adequate winter habitat, northern populations of deer would be subject to extreme fluctuations due to heightened levels of winter mortality during moderate and severe winters. Additional information on the winter habitat requirements of deer can be found in the publication Wildlife Habitat Management for Vermont Woodlands, a Landowner's Guide, which is available from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.  

                In addition to benefits for deer, dense softwood stands provide critical winter food supplies for a variety of other wildlife species including porcupines, snowshoe hare, fox, fisher, coyotes, bobcats, crows, ravens, and red and white-winged crossbills to name a few. Other wintering birds routinely find shelter from winds in these conifer stands. Logging can be either detrimental or beneficial to the habitat depending on the harvest method employed and the overall sensitivity shown by the logger and landowner to maintaining these areas of dense softwood cover. Specific management recommendations are given in Management Guide for Deer Wintering Areas in Vermont , which is available from the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. 

                Conserving deer wintering areas is essential to maintaining and managing white-tailed deer in Vermont . Deer wintering areas make up a relatively small percentage of the land base of most towns. In fact, only 8% of the forested landscape of Vermont has been mapped as deer winter habitat, so it is not an abundant habitat across the state.    


Conservation Goals

                 A town or other planning group might adopt goals like these for the conservation of deer wintering areas. 

1.        Maintain and protect the functional integrity of all deer wintering areas within the town or area of interest. 

2.        Increase the number of deer wintering area acres that are either under long-term stewardship or that are permanently conserved in the town or area of interest.   


Obtaining and Interpreting Information

Information Sources  

                See Resources for information on how to contact or visit the websites of the agencies and organizations mentioned below.

  • Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department: The Department maintains a GIS database of previously mapped deer wintering areas. These are included on the Department's significant habitat maps, which are available from the VFWD and town and regional planning commissions.

  • Vermont Center for Geographic Information The Center has a data layer showing currently mapped deer wintering areas.

  •  Local hunters: People who spend time in the woods are often one of the best sources of up-to-date information on active deer wintering areas   

Deer Wintering Areas

Deer Wintering Areas

Interpreting the Information  

                Most deer wintering areas were originally identified in the 1960s and 1970s using aerial observations, infrared aerial photos, and ground confirmation prior to delineation on USGS 1:24,000 topographic maps. Additional areas are added to the database as they are discovered. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all deer wintering areas have been mapped. It is also important to remember that some deer wintering areas mapped in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s may no longer exist because of changes in forest cover and changes in land use. Therefore, if you suspect an area serves as deer winter habitat, we recommend you Contact Us. 


Conservation Strategies

        Once information has been gathered on deer winter habitat, you can develop specific conservation strategies to help achieve your goals. Examples of strategies for each goal are presented below. 


1. Goal: Maintain and protect the functional integrity of all deer wintering areas within the town or area of interest.  


        a. Adopt language in the town plan that protects deer wintering areas, as recommended by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Sample Language: Deer wintering areas will be protected from development and other uses that threaten the ability of this habitat to support wintering deer. Commercial, residential, and industrial development should not occur within deer wintering areas. Development may be permitted adjacent to a deer wintering area if consultation with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department determines that the integrity of the wintering area will be conserved.  

        b. A town plan could reference the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's 1999 Guidelines for the Review & Mitigation of Impacts to White-tailed Deer Winter Habitat in Vermont and require consideration of the conservation principles established in those guidelines. This could be done in combination with the previous strategy. Free copies of these guidelines are available from the Department. Contact Us

        c. Locate existing deer winter habitat throughout the town using GIS, paper maps, and other wildlife-use data. Trained professionals can also help you evaluate the extent to which unmapped deer winter habitat exists in the town area of interest. Include deer winter areas in an overlay district that restricts development in and around deer yards.  

        d. Allow for PUDs in town zoning and/or subdivision regulations as an alternative to conventional subdivisions, and require or provide incentives for PUD designs that cluster development away from deer wintering areas. Adopt language for zoning similar to the following example. Sample Language: Commercial, residential, and industrial development will not be allowed within the bounds of a deer wintering area as shown on the town's deer wintering area map. Development within 300 feet of a deer wintering area will be permitted only if, after consultation with the Vermont Department Fish and Wildlife, it is shown that the integrity of the deer wintering area will be conserved. Note: 300 feet is the minimum distance required to avoid disturbance to wintering deer.  


2. Goal: Increase the number of acres of deer winter habitat that is under long term stewardship or that is permanently conserved in the town or area of interest.  


        a. Target the largest, highest quality deer wintering areas, particularly those that overlap with other natural heritage elements, for land acquisition or conservation easements. Incorporate wintering areas in open space planning and land acquisition programs, giving higher priority to those deer wintering habitats that also contain other natural heritage elements. 

        b. Offer density bonuses to subdivision developments that protect and properly manage deer wintering areas by means of conservation easements (refer to riparian strategies, 2d for example zoning regulation language). 

        c. Identify interested landowners in the town or area of interest who own or control property that supports deer winter habitat. Work with those landowners/ managers to encourage and assist them in developing deer winter habitat management and improvement plans. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department offers information and advice for developing such plans. Contact Us


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