Deer and other wildlife benefit from mild winter
ASPEN – This mild winter isn’t the greatest for skiers, but it’s ideal for wildlife that are coming off tough conditions in recent years, according to state wildlife officers.
Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Recreation, said the below-average snowfall so far this winter allows deer and elk to conserve more of their energy because they haven’t been trudging through deep snow. John Groves, district wildlife manager for the Carbondale area, said the lack of long cold streaks also benefits deer, elk, bighorn sheep and other animals because they don’t burn through reserves as quickly.
“These open winters like this, it’s a godsend,” Will said. “It’s good for deer and elk.”
Groves said he saw some deer on south-facing slopes at elevations as high as 10,400 feet southwest of Carbondale in the first week of January. He said Kevin Wright, district wildlife manager for the Aspen area, saw some elk at elevations of as high as 12,000 feet south of Aspen Highlands during the first week of January.
“Typically we don’t see animals up that high,” Groves said.
Will said he has been a wildlife officer for “a long time.” Spotting deer and elk at those elevations that late in the winter is “unheard of,” he said.
Big game prefer to stay at high elevations as long as weather allows, in part because they avoid predators and disturbances from humans and dogs, the wildlife officers said. After some early October snowstorms, conditions in the Colorado mountains and much of the West were dry in November and December.
Snow started falling in January, after Groves and Wright spotted deer and elk up high, so the animals undoubtedly have been driven down, Groves said. Nevertheless, this winter continues to be easy on them.
Will said deer and elk have access to more forage when snowpack is below average so they haven’t crowded severe winter range. The animals are scattered over a greater area. That allows habitat of all types to recover because it isn’t getting overbrowsed.
“You don’t hammer the winter range,” Will said.
He said his rule of thumb is if there is “brown ground” at Christmastime, deer typically do well for the winter. Even if the remainder of the winter brings average amounts of snow, the deer have the strength to make it through the winter.
Colorado’s deer herds experienced a tough time in the winter of 2007-08 and, to a lesser extent, last winter. In 2007-08, deer and elk were plagued by deep snow during the first half of the winter. The snowpack in the Aspen area was 50 percent above average in December 2007 and 30-plus percent above average in January. The Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has since been wrapped into Colorado Parks and Wildlife, fed struggling deer in the Gunnison River Basin that winter, but they held off feeding deer in the Roaring Fork River basin.
Sportsmen have said last winter was tough for a different reason. Winter wouldn’t relent. A deep snowpack kept building when storms hit the mountains in April and into May. Some deer that struggled to survive the winter couldn’t deal with the deep, late snow and perished, according to high-country observers. Deer also are challenged when snow crusts over, which is typical of late-winter storms, and they can’t break through to forage.
This year, wildlife officers say deer and elk will be better equipped to deal with whatever winter brings because of the easy first half of the season.
“Overall I’d say it’s been great,” Groves said. “They’re really going to have a short winter.”
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