Wintering with wildlife
Agencies help deer and elk weather difficult season

SideStory: Seasonal closures in effect


A small herb of bucks makes its way down an undisclosed location somewhere inS outhwest Colorado. Local wildlife and land agencies are asking for residents’ help in mitigating stress on the wintering animals. People are asked to respect land closures and keep dogs on leash when on public lands until spring. This year’s deep, crusty snow has been unusually rough on area deer and elk./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Missy Votel

Humans are not the only ones suffering hardship from this winter’s heavy snowfall. The deep, crusty snowpack and cold temperatures are taking a toll on area deer and elk, and wildlife officials are asking residents for help in making things easier on the wintering herds. In addition to asking people to observe seasonal public lands closures and keep dogs on leash, the Bureau of Land Management is stepping up patrols of closed areas starting this weekend. Anyone found violating seasonal closure will be issued a citation which carries a fine starting at $125.

“Winter is a stressful time anyway for animals, especially deer and elk,” said Patt Dorsey, area wildlife manager for the Division of Wildlife in Durango, which works jointly with the BLM in helping to determine closures. “Generally, the animals go into winter in good condition with lots of fat and lose weight all winter long.”

Any disturbance, particularly one caused by humans and dogs, can cause animals to use up their much-needed stores of fat, which in turn decreases their chances of survival. “They need their fat to survive, and by running they end up burning the energy they need to survive the winter,” Dorsey said.

She said the greatest mortality risk is for fawns, particularly ones born later in the summer. Older, weaker animals are also at a higher risk.

Although Durango has always been prime winter habitat for deer and elk, Dorsey said what is different about this winter is the deep snow coupled with cold temperatures. In typical years, snow burns off south-facing slopes relatively quickly after a storm, creating forage and cover. However, this year’s cold has prevented this from occurring. As a result, animals

have been forced out in the open or down into town, where they seek shelter under trees in yards and congregate on plowed roadways and trails.

“Think about it, if you were a deer or elk, you would walk in areas where the snow has been plowed,” said Dorsey.

Although it may seem like there are more deer this year, Dorsey said they probably just more concentrated in areas where people can see them. Despite some of the animals’ scraggly appearances, she said people should resist the urge to feed them, which can be fatal. “People kind of feel sorry and want to feed them, but we advise them not to,” said Dorsey. Deer especially have a specific bacteria in their guts for digesting their main diet of sage, oak brush and choke cherry. Any introduced food, such as hay, can upset the delicate flora balance. “What happens is, they eat the4 hay and it just sits in their stomachs because they can’t digest it, and they die from bloat. It’s better to accept that a deer knows more about what a deer should eat then a person does.”

Of course, deer are not the only ones making an appearance in and around town this winter. Mountain lions, usually scarce in the winter, have been reported in Rafter J, where a housecat was killed last month, and last week at Fort Lewis College.

Although Dorsey had not heard about the Fort Lewis College sighting, she said it did not surprise her. “They follow the deer,” she said. “The fact that the deer are concentrated means the mountain lions probably are, too.”

Dorsey said despite the deep snow, there are no plans for a food drop for local herds as was done last year in Gunnison County. In that case, the main diet of sagebrush was buried, but here she said there is still some forage above ground. “Here, if the sagebrush is covered up, they eat choke cherries or oakbrush,” she said.

However, even that will soon run low, meaning energy conservation for the herds is more vital than ever, said BLM field wildlife biologist, Chris Schultz. “Right now, they’re burning a lot more energy than they’re taking in. It’s all about conservation, sitting around and keeping activity as low as possible,” he said.

Unfortunately, this low-energy output does not happen to coincide with the human need to recreate outdoors, especially during those long, dark days of winter. As a result, starting in 1997, the BLM began implementing seasonal, conditions-based closure of some public lands in order to protect the wintering herds. These areas include the upper reaches of Animas Mountain as well as the Grandview Ridge area, including the Sale Barn, Sidewinder, South Rim and Big Canyon trails. “We are trying to balance areas for people to recreate with the survival of animals on public lands,” said Schultz. “We hope what we offer is a good, common-sense approach.”

Schultz noted that the areas that have been closed to the public have not changed since 1997, however, the season fluctuates depending on snow and spring melt-out. “We had a string of winters where there was no snow and we didn’t close the areas at all,” he said.

However, a marked increase in disregard for the closures this year prompted the BLM to step up its enforcement. “We have been doing monitoring and found an unfortunate amount of people not respecting the closures,” said Schultz. “It’s definitely a higher rate than we’ve seen in recent years.”

That, coupled with the crusty snow inhibiting the animal’s movement, led to the decision to enforce the closure. “A $100 fine will definitely get your attention,” he said, adding that several citations were handed out last year as well. “Enforcement is something we prefer not to do, but have to.”

In addition, BLM staff will also be out on area trails and public lands educating people on the situation. “We want to let people know they can help by honoring the closure and please keeping their dogs on leash, especially on the lower loop of Animas Mountain.”

Schultz said he was unsure when the areas will be re-opened to the public, but expected it to be sometime between March 1 - April 15. In the meantime, he reminded residents to be patient and understanding. “Animals are here, but of course, we expect that living where we do,” he said “We inhabit the same areas in the winter, and it’s exciting to get to see these animals up close and personal. It’s one of the joys of living in Durango.”

 

 

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