Our mild January: Winners and losers in the wild kingdom

February 1 marked the tenth anniversary of the coldest temperature ever recorded in Minnesota. The minus 60 degree reading (measured in the Arrowhead town of Tower) produced a weird sort of provincial glee. If memory serves, one enterprising television reporter demonstrated the extremity of the cold--and presumably, the hardiness of Minnesotans--by spraying water in the air; the droplets froze solid before they hit the ground. Even though you probably watched the spectacle from the comfort of the couch, you couldn't help but feel a little bad ass for living here.

What a difference a decade makes. In the wake of the warmest January on record, there is not much to boast about. And aside from the occasional snowmobile or SUV dropping through thin lake ice (oh, and the prospect of calimitous global climate change), there really wasn't much to gripe about either.

But the freakish winter weather has been a cause of considerable concern among one group of people: the scientists who make their living studying the local flora and fauna. "Things are going to change and we don't know exactly how. That's worriesome," says Pam Perry, a veteran wildlife specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Perry notes that some animals are clearly benefiting from the mild winter. She observes that bald eagles--normally scare in central Minnesota this time of year--are hanging around in unusual numbers; that's because there is so much open water on the Mississippi.

Meanwhile, the already over-sized white tailed deer herd is enjoying the high temperatures and low-snow depths. That is bad news for struggling moose populations, who do not favor such conditions or the company of deer. If this weather regime persists, it stands to reason the deer will continue their northward push into moose country. Goodbye, Bullwinkle.

For ruffed grouse (a chicken-like game bird whose populations have been low for several years), this winter may also prove rough. That's because grouse rely on deep snow to hide. What's bad for the prey can be good for the predator. Animals such as owls and foxes who like to eat grouse (along with voles, mice and other snow-burrowing critters) should be feasting.

So what's the overall tenor of conversation among Perry's peers? "Right now, most of us are watching and really thinking about it a lot," she says. "As we go into the spring, I think this [mild winter] is going to be factored into a lot of field studies. As a scientist, I'm curious about this--that's why I became a scientist. But I am also worried."

For biologists, the spread of disease carrying insects is among the most alarming consequences of a more permanent shift in the weather pattern. By and large, warmer weather favor the insect kingdom. Next year, Perry notes, we can expect a bumper crop of wasps. Put another way, when summer comes, more of us will feel the sting of our mild winter.