Craig District Wildlife Managers and terrestrial biologists with the Colorado Division of Wildlife are monitoring winter conditions throughout Northwest Colorado to determine whether wildlife populations will need supplemental winter feeding, according to a news release.
"At this point we're in fairly good shape," said Ron Velarde, DOW Northwest regional manager, in the news release. "Fortunately, we are not seeing the difficult winter conditions that they are experiencing in the Gunnison Basin, nor do we have the same type of landscape."
The DOW began a massive deer feeding operation in the Gunnison Basin more than a week ago. Deer around Gunnison are dealing with extreme snow depths, temperatures well below zero and a layer of hard-crusted snow that makes foraging for food extremely difficult. Additionally, the Gunnison Basin is an enclosed winter ecosystem and heavy snow leaves animals with no way to move to lower or more open terrain. Without the extensive feeding effort, many of the deer in the Gunnison area could face starvation.
"While we are seeing some very localized areas in the northwest part of the state that have heavy snow depths, there are readily available areas nearby those sites where sage brush and other critical food sources are available," said John Broderick, senior terrestrial biologist for the northwest region. "We've also avoided the prolonged extreme cold temperatures, and we aren't finding heavy crusting conditions."
District Wildlife Managers are monitoring herds in the Meeker, Craig, Steamboat Springs, North Park, Eagle, Middle Park and Aspen areas. Herd monitoring is accomplished in a number of ways. Wildlife managers can visually analyze body condition on deer and elk herds in their districts.
Wildlife professionals are also utilizing DOW airplanes to examine available habitat and animal tracks in remote areas.
"As deer become more stressed by heavy winter snows, they tend to utilize existing trails instead of exerting excess energy to break new trail," said Perry Will, Area Wildlife Manager for Glenwood Springs. "When the animals start 'troughing,' or using a single trail, it's another indicator of severe conditions."
DOW employees also are analyzing bone marrow of animals that are killed by vehicles. "Deer and elk have a natural fat reserve that helps sustain them during the winter months," explained DOW Hot Sulphur Springs Area Wildlife Manager Lyle Sidener. "When that natural reserve is used up, the deer turn to the fat in the bone marrow as a last resort. Monitoring the marrow helps determine if the situation is becoming critical."
Deer and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the primary starvation concern during hard winters. As smaller animals they are more prone to the difficulties associated with heavy snow. Elk are much more adaptable and less likely to suffer from heavy snows. Moose, the largest member of the deer family, are well adapted to more harsh winter conditions and they don't mind waiting out the winter eating tall shoots of willow that are not covered by snow.
"Most of our deer have moved out of the Steamboat Springs area and far to the west where they are finding open conditions," said Jim Haskins, DOW Area Wildlife Manager in Steamboat Springs. "We are seeing a small number of elk that are struggling, but that's more due to their own unwillingness to move to where the food can be found than due to the winter conditions."
Many of the deer and elk in northwest Colorado have never seen a hard winter or, in some cases, even a normal winter. The past eight winters have been relatively mild, leading deer and elk to stay in areas that aren't really appropriate winter range.
Meeker Area Wildlife Manager Bill deVergie is seeing that exact situation. "This is certainly more snow than we've had in quite a few years, but it is more of a typical winter. Most of the big game in this area hasn't seen anything but mild winters in their lifetime, so they're trying to figure out how to adapt. For the most part the animals are finding ways to find food on areas of critical winter range."
Wildlife managers are reporting some mortalities, but it is normal for some mortality to occur during the winter. Old, young and sick animals often succumb to even mild winter conditions. Two significant deer studies in northwest Colorado use radio tracking collars to monitor mule deer mortalities. The Middle Park study and the Piceance deer monitoring are both seeing mortality consistent with this time of year. The studies are another way that wildlife managers can watch for signs that intervention might be necessary.
Chronic Wasting Disease is another complicating factor in feeding decisions for northwest Colorado wildlife managers. While CWD has not been detected in the Gunnison Basin, it has been found in some parts of northwest Colorado. Any feeding of deer in areas with confirmed instances of CWD must be approved by the Colorado Wildlife Commission. This is because feeding sites create large concentrations of deer and elk, which can result in increased transmission of CWD and other diseases.