During the winter, the heart rate and metabolism of deer and elk slows. It is an energy-conservation mechanism used to counter balance the animals' lack of available food.
If a deer or elk is disturbed, spooked or chased, it must get up and run, raising its heart rate and metabolism. When this extra energy is exerted, the animals must find more food to compensate. Some may venture onto private land, damaging haystacks, but some may be spooked into areas with deep snow and no food, said Jason Szyba, wildlife biological technician for the U.S. Forest Service Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District.
For this reason, the Forest Service is asking people to stay out of areas where the big game settle in winter.
Such areas typically are found at lower elevations, particularly south-facing slopes, which are slightly warmer in the winter and have more plentiful forage including some visible grasses, chokecherry, sarvis berry and oak brush, Szyba said. Big game animals tend to come down from the cold, mountainous forests into these areas during winter, sometimes coming into contact with people.
If people do come across a deer or elk in the forest, they are asked to stay away to prevent spooking the animal, Szyba said.
Protecting the big game population is particularly important this year in part because the high number of animals means that food is scarce, Szyba said.
Susan Werner, area wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said part of the reason the populations are so high is because many large land parcels, where hunting used to be allowed, have been subdivided into smaller parcels where homeowners may not feel comfortable allowing hunting.
Also, humans have disturbed elk migratory patterns by building homes on south-facing slopes, allowing for a smaller number of places for big game to stay during the winter, Werner said.
"People like to be warm, too," Werner said. "That means the elk have to find other places to go."