Steamboat Springs So far, so good is the message for Northwest Colorado deer and elk herds, but areas including Steamboat Springs and Craig could be on the cusp of a wildlife crisis.
Officials are closely monitoring the region and have taken steps that will allow them to quickly respond with an emergency feeding program if it becomes necessary. The state Legislature's Joint Budget Committee approved Tuesday a $1.75 million request for money that may be used to feed local deer and elk. The money is being taken from the Wildlife Cash Fund, where any unspent funds will return.
Emergency feeding already is under way in the Gunnison Basin, where the snowpack was at 133 percent of average as of Wednesday, and overnight temperatures are dropping as low as 35 degrees below zero.
"The good news is, at the present time, we're not seeing the same kind of conditions in Northwest Colorado that we're seeing in the Gunnison Basin," said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. "Obviously, there's another storm system moving into the area later this week. That can change things."
The snowpack in the Yampa and White River basins was at 100 percent of average Wednesday, but conditions vary greatly between measuring sites such as Battle Mountain (135 percent), Trapper Lake (81 percent), Buffalo Park (88 percent), Dry Lake (103 percent), Elk River (118 percent) and Rabbit Ears (106 percent).
Animals are threatened by deeper-than-average snowpacks because it makes it more difficult for them to reach food. Reaching that food also requires them to expend more energy.
In the Gunnison Basin, even large plants such as sage have been completely submerged in snow. Along with the snowpack, officials are closely monitoring conditions such as temperature and crusting.
"There's a lot of snow, but a lot of snow is not the only thing that matters," Hampton said.
In the Gunnison Basin, a crusted surface several inches deep has prevented animals, especially deer, from digging their way to food. If similar conditions develop in Northwest Colorado - home to even larger big-game herds - Hampton said the $1.75 million request approved by the Joint Budget Committee would allow officials to respond quickly.
"It's money that, if we're going to have to feed in Northwest Colorado, we're going to need to spend," Hampton said. "We'll be able to hit the ground running."
Tyler Baskfield, another Division of Wildlife spokesman, said a quick response is crucial, and noted how quickly conditions can change.
"The deer went through December in very good condition," Baskfield said of the Gunnison Basin herds.
In supporting the funding request, Gov. Bill Ritter cited a Division of Wildlife estimate that without emergency aid, mule deer herds could experience a 90 percent increase in mortality rates for fawns and a 30 to 40 percent increase for adults.
"It could take the herds up to five years to recover, forcing a reduction in hunting and a potential $14 million economic loss to local communities," according to a statement from Ritter's office.
State Rep. Al White, R-Hayden, is a member of the Joint Budget Committee. He supported the funding request, and anticipates the money will be put to use.
"I think unless we can get some emergency food to them, we're going to see some attrition," White said. "I've been talking to people in Craig, and they're telling me the same thing."
Wildlife monitoring and feeding operations are primarily focused on deer, which have more specific nutritional needs than elk. The triggering point for commencing an emergency feeding operation is if the Division of Wildlife believes 30 percent of the female adult herd could die without intervention.
Big-game animals lose 30 percent of their body weight during a normal winter, according to the Division of Wildlife. When they lose more than that, their survival can be severely compromised. While elk are less threatened, the aggressive animals also are fed as a part of emergency feeding operations because they will displace deer if easy food is available. Placing hay in specific areas helps keep them away from deer-feeding areas.
Hampton urged people not to feed animals on their own.
"It's against the law in Colorado to feed big-game animals," he said.
Hampton said deer have been known to die with full stomachs because they derive little nutritional value from the hay and alfalfa that people might try to feed them.
"It's like throwing out cupcakes to them," he said.
The Division of Wildlife is seeking volunteers who want to help with the emergency feeding operation in the Gunnison Basin. Those interested should call Jennifer Kleffner, southwest region volunteer coordinator, at (970) 375-6704. Information also is available at wildlife.state.co.us/.
The Division of Wildlife also requests that people not disturb wildlife at this time of year. To prevent such disturbances, the Bureau of Land Management announced Wednesday it is banning motorized use in parts of the Gunnison Basin.