Spring snowstorms cause issues for road crews, wildlife

Challenging. That's the way both county and city engineers described the wet, heavy snow that broke the record for snowfall in the month of April this year. "The roads are all thawing and soft, especially the gravel roads," said County Engineer M...

Photo by Jamie Lund


That's the way both county and city engineers described the wet, heavy snow that broke the record for snowfall in the month of April this year.

"The roads are all thawing and soft, especially the gravel roads," said County Engineer Michael Tardy, noting that plowing is entirely different midwinter when everything is frozen solid. "The problem -- with spring snow clearing -- is the equipment sinks in. The blades will dig up the gravel surface and often make it more impassable than if left alone. It ruts it up."

Not only do the soft road conditions mean plow drivers must drive slower than usual, they also pose a risk to equipment and drivers.

"Equipment can get damaged and driver safety is impacted," said Tardy, who recently took over as county engineer after Wayne Olson retired. "In the past, not here, I remember an instance where the wing blade caught on the shoulder and actually flipped a truck."


Having more than two feet of snow on the ground in April is challenging for wildlife as well, said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Cloquet-area wildlife manager Chris Balzer.

"This time of year, even when there is still snow, the deer can usually find some green grass on the south facing areas," Balzer said Tuesday. "I think the deer will be fine because winter in this area came on pretty mild and started late. There was really no significant snow depth until February. But we need it to end."

Further north, the deer aren't expected to do as well.

Up to 40 percent of last year's fawns are likely to die this winter in northern St. Louis and Koochiching counties, along with about 15 percent of adult deer, according to Minnesota DNR wildlife officials. In an average winter, 10 percent of last year's fawns die.

Despite relatively mild conditions for most of the winter from the Iron Range south, it's a different story across the northern tier of Minnesota, said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager at Tower. Snow depths remain at 15 inches or more in the north, pushing the state's Winter Severity Index into the "severe" category.

"It's a tale of almost two winters," Rusch said. "Especially in the northern tier of counties, it has really been extreme."

The Winter Severity Index, a measure of cold and snow depth, hit 150 at International Falls last weekend, Rusch said. That's considered a severe winter by DNR wildlife officials, who use the WSI to predict deer mortality and set the next season's projected harvest.

However, Balzer put the Winter Severity Index for Carlton County in the low 60s.


Seasonal bird migration is well behind normal for most species, birders say, although the Canada geese have been marching through the snow at Cloquet's Spafford Park for at least a couple of weeks now. Some robins have returned. Nature writer Larry Weber noted in a recent column that despite the snow, he had seen robins, red-winged blackbirds, hermit thrushes and yellow-rumped warblers as well as redpolls.

Balzer said the nesting efforts of Canada geese will likely be significantly delayed.

"A lot of the time we'll have goslings by fishing opener," he said. "I suspect they're going to be later this year and that may impact some production.

"But we don't really have a problem with the geese population," he added.

The end of winter may be in sight, however. Despite a snowfall Monday that left close to 10 inches on the ground in some areas of Carlton County, meteorologists are predicting a gradual warm-up to near 50 degrees by Friday and maybe even 60s for the weekend and into next week.

That's going to mean some fast melting for the snowpack, which sat at more than two feet Monday in Duluth and more than three feet in parts of the Arrowhead. This is the latest this much snow has ever been on the ground since records have been kept; it is equivalent of several inches of rain waiting to be released.

The Northland's terrain and topography, with ample hills, wetlands, lakes and rivers, usually mitigates any spring flood problems by storing and moving water without major backups.

But with so much water already on the ground, any large rainfall events over the next two weeks could be too much for the system to handle in some areas.


"My concern is that the snowpack ripens (turns soft and melts) and then we get a lot of rain on top of that. We could see some problems," said Steve Gohde, observation program leader for the Weather Service in Duluth. "Usually even a fast melt on its own isn't a problem up here."

Cloquet City Engineer Jim Prusak predicted the snow melt will cause ponding in yards and residents should check their sump pumps to avoid water in the basement.

"Until the frost is totally gone and the snow piles -- which can act like dams -- flooding is a threat," he said, admitting that under normal conditions Cloquet residents don't have to worry much about high waters.

County workers will also have to shift gears with the rising temperatures.

"A lot depends on the thaw now and how much rain we get," Tardy said, predicting that some county roads will flood. "There's so much snow out there, if it goes in a hurry and we get some warm rain, there will definitely be some flooding. We have to make sure our culverts and drainage systems are operating correctly.

"We'll be shifting from snowplow mode to maintaining our drainage systems."

Anyone worried that workers won't have enough to keep them busy when the snow stops flying can rest easy, Prusak said.

"Our next big challenge is potholes," he said.

Forum News Service writers Sam Cook and John Myers contributed to this story.

A robin perches in Joe Nowak's tree after last week's heavy snow. Jana Peterson

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