A relatively dry streak in the Roaring Fork Valley since a Dec. 4 dump hasn’t been great for skiers, but it’s possibly been a lifesaver for deer.
Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, recently said that weather conditions in November and early December were “really tough” on deer in mountains and valleys surrounding Aspen. Snowfall was well above average in the fall, and there was an extended frigid period in December. Deer had a difficult time pawing through the snow and reaching food sources.
Wildlife officials want to see deer and elk have access to “brown ground” through Christmas, he said. That allows them to hold on to their fat reserves further into the winter.
But Mother Nature doesn’t care what would be best for deer. Snowpack levels soared after a storm dumped 12 to 18 inches of snow on the mountains around Aspen on Nov. 19 and 20. The snowpack was 112 percent of average near the headwaters of the Roaring Fork River east of Aspen by late November. It climbed higher after another big dump Dec. 4.
“It starts the stress a month earlier,” Will said of the conditions.
If the snow had continued to accumulate at those levels, Will said his concern for deer populations would be much greater. But the Aspen area has only picked up a few inches of snow here and there since early December. The snowpack is now at or below average at seven stations where it is measured in the Roaring Fork River basin, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The severity of the remainder of the winter will determine how deer herds fare, Will said.
Snowpack is 96 percent of average at the Independence site east of Aspen, the agency reported Thursday. In the Fryingpan Valley, it ranges from just 75 percent of average at Nast to 96 percent at the Kiln site.
The Crystal Valley has the highest snowpack, with both McClure Pass and Schofield Pass registering 112 percent of average.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife feeds deer in the most severe winters. Wildlife officials usually assess conditions in the first half of January to determine if the snow depth warrants providing deer with food, Will said. Processed food pellets are dispersed in high-concentration areas using tracked all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles. The last time that happened in the Roaring Fork Valley was the winter of 2007-08, according to Will.
Even with the assistance, the mortality rate of the deer herds was high that winter, he said. Only about 10 percent of the animals can be helped through feeding.
The drop in the snowpack in Pitkin County to average levels suggests deer won’t be fed in January.
One avid outdoorsman said he has witnessed something unusual this winter. Deer have stayed high in elevation despite the snowpack level, and they have munched on frozen chokecherries still clinging to trees.