A hard winter for wildlife | AspenTimes.com

A hard winter for wildlife

Elk relax and browse for food at Crystal River Ranch west of Carbondale last weekend.
Randy Essex / Post Independent |

A harsh winter is pushing wildlife toward desperation as their food is buried under snow, and the next best option is the haystacks that ranchers intended for their cattle.

Wildlife managers expect the scant access to food to lead to higher mortality rates for big game, especially mule deer, whose numbers have already been diminishing over the past decade.

“I’ve just returned from a tour of the area, and based on what I saw, we will likely see some significant impacts to wildlife,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Regional Manager Ron Velarde. “But people need to understand that, despite how damaging conditions are right now, wildlife has been experiencing and surviving severe weather for eons without human intervention, so it’s important to have the proper perspective.”

“This winter has been horrible for the wildlife,” said Nanci Limbach, executive director of Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation based in Silt.

The foundation has seen an unusual increase in dead owls, she said. They primarily eat rodents and insects, which are all inaccessible because they’re living under thick snow.

“This winter has brought the kind of snow we only see every 10 to 12 years,” she said, a critical factor being that there hasn’t been a thawing period between snows.

Only a handful of times in recent memory has Limbach seen elk at the lower elevations to where they’ve flocked this winter.

Tom VonDette, vice president of the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association, who lives in Rifle, said much of his land is covered in 2 feet of snow that wildlife just can’t dig through.

Ranchers are feeding elk every day alongside their cattle, and for many of the elk, it’s the only feed they’re getting, he said.

“And it’s really hurting the deer because they don’t have a chance once the elk move in,” he said.

Trailing behind the herds are predators also looking for a meal, VonDette said.

Ranchers must either spend more money on feed to make up for what the wildlife have consumed or their own animals are underfed, he said.

Compounding the problem is shrinking elk and deer ranges being squeezed by new development, especially along river bottoms where they would go for water, VonDette said.

A few solutions have been offered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, such as specialized elk fencing to guard haystacks. But “all bets are off when it comes time to feed,” said Bill McKee, president of the Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association.

Ranchers also have used blank shotgun shells to scare off big game, but the large animals are hungry enough that they’ve gradually lost their fear of humans, tractors and even shotgun blasts, McKee said.

“They’ve offered some damage tags to let you shoot a cow elk to reduce the herd, but you can’t kill many of them,” VonDette said.

If a substantial amount of livestock feed is eaten, Colorado Parks and Wildlife also will reimburse ranchers as much as $5,000 for the damages.

During these hard winters there’s not much to do but work together, VonDette said. The only other thing that could be done is for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife to up the amount ranchers get reimbursed for damages to their feed supply, he said.

Even though hay is at a relatively good price, between $100 to $125 per ton, the elk can go through that pretty quickly, VonDette said.

Another solution is for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to start an emergency feeding program for the wildlife, but the agency waits for a high mortality rate before it will consider that option.

“By policy, certain conditions have to be met before an emergency feeding program can be considered, and we are not there yet,” Velarde said. “But what is very important for the public to understand is that although we may see short-term effects from feeding, our experience has shown that it has had limited long-term benefits overall.”

For now, Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates the mortality rate in female mule deer is less than 10 percent.

“That percentage can certainly change quickly under such conditions,” said Brad Petch, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s senior terrestrial biologist. “Our personnel are keeping a very close watch on conditions and mortality, and we will continue to do so through the rest of the winter.”

Limbach said she’s also worked on Colorado Parks and Wildlife emergency feeding programs — and there’s a good reason the agency tries to avoid implementing a feeding program.

If you’re feeding the wildlife, at a certain point they’re no longer wildlife, McKee said.

“We understand that people want to help in situations like these,” Velarde said. “But feeding should only be done by professionals, if it’s done at all. If people take matters into their own hands, it will likely do more harm than good, leading to wildlife deaths and can also result in citations and fines.”

The days are getting longer, offering hope to the animals that lasted this long, but the coming weeks will be especially hard, Limbach said. Soon people will start to see the animals that didn’t make it all the way through, she said.

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