Georgia 1993 Blizzard Blasts Pines, Wildlife
North Georgia is still reeling from the impact of the historic blizzard of ‘93 that dumped up to 2 feet of snow in the mountains, and deer hunters are likely to feel the effects for years to come.
Six days after the storm, on Friday, March 19, a crew running three chainsaws and a bulldozer finally pushed through to the Jones Creek check station on Blue Ridge WMA, one of the hardest hit areas. At press time, road-clearing crews had yet to make it from the Jones Creek check station to Winding Stair Gap.
“There are still thousands of trees down in the roads,” said Wildlife Biologist Kent Kammermeyer with Game and Fish.
The trees, mostly Virginia and white pines, were uprooted by the combination of snow in the branches and high winds.
The U.S. Forest Service estimated that more than 1,000 miles of roads were blocked by downed trees and that more than 17 million board feet of timber was on the ground on National Forest land alone.
The storm took its toll on wildlife, too. At press time, just three yearling deer had been found dead in the Blairsville area, including one on Coopers Creek WMA. Biologists expect to hear of more dead deer with the opening of trout season and the crowds of fishermen walking the thick areas along the creeks. Anyone finding dead wildlife in the mountains is requested to notify the nearest Game and Fish office.
Army helicopter pilots flying out of Dahlonega over Blue Ridge WMA reported seeing approximately 20 dead turkeys laying on top of the snow. Poor physical condition or flying debris were the likely cause of death. Songbirds were also hard hit by the high winds. The pilots also reported seeing several coyotes—some of them feeding on turkey carcasses.
The snowstorm, followed two consecutive years of poor acorn production, hit the deer herd the hardest. The late-winter heavy snow came when the deer were the most stressed. On Chattahoochee WMA, Kent found a browse line on mountain laurel. There is little else for them to eat.
“Whole bushes had been eaten back to the stem,” said Kent. “Mountain laurel ranks below rhododendron as a preferred food, so you know the deer are in trouble if they are eating it.”
Two age classes of deer will be affected most by the rough weather: yearlings and this year’s fawns. Yearlings are the youngest and weakest segment of the herd; and reproduction of fawns this year is likely to drop sharply. Severely weakened does may either reabsorb the fawn abort, give birth to a still-born fawn or to a fawn that is so weak that it won’t survive the first few days. Hunters are likely to notice the poor year-class for several years.
Too, the yearling bucks that survive will likely grow smaller antlers. They will be trying to put on body weight and will expend less nutrition on antler growth.
The older age-class bucks will be less affected. For a heavier deer, the loss of a few pounds is less critical than it is for a yearling.
Turkeys may be the first to recover from the tough times.
“Because turkeys have such a high potential to reproduce, they can bounce back quickly,” said Kent. “One good nesting season and hunters will hardly know the difference.”
The good news is that the negative impact of the storm is relatively short term. Long term, the thousands of downed trees will allow more sunlight to reach the forest floor, encouraging the growth of browse for deer.
The key, however, for a healthy wildlife population in the mountains is acorns. For the past two years, production has been poor. Biologists—and hunters—are hoping that there won’t be an unprecedented third mast failure in a row. The blizzard came early enough that it did not affect mast production. Because of the late spring, the oak trees in the mountains have yet to flower. The trick now is to escape the remainder of early spring without a last-minute wintery blast from the Arctic.
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