Helping Vail Valley’s starving deer survive
Vail, CO Colorado
WOLCOTT, Colorado ” The deer aren’t as scared as they used to be of the strange, growling machine slowly crawling through the hills north of Wolcott every morning.
Actually, they’re starting to associate the loud engine of a Snow Cat with a much needed lunch.
Kendall Ross and Sonia Marzec stand in the back of a snow cat as Perry Will, the driver, flattens a path through the deep powder on the mountain. Ross and Marzec open 50-pound bags of deer feed and empty them onto the trail.
The deer scatter at first, keep their distance, hide in the juniper trees, but don’t go off too far. As the snowcat leaves the area, the deer slowly come back to find their meal ” hardened chunks of processed grain by-products, roughage by-products, vitamin supplements, fat and protein. It’s everything a deer needs to survive a harsh winter. It tastes like cardboard with a hint of grass.
The deer need the food because of what the rest of us are calling an excellent snow season. The powder may be a blessing for ski slopes, but it covered up the small plants and shrubs, like sagebrush, that deer eat in the winter.
Now, any food, even wafers dropped from the back of a scary machine, is welcome.
The Division of Wildlife is putting out about three pounds of food for each of the hundreds of deer around Eagle and Wolcott, and it’s an operation they’re not used to doing. This is just the third time in 25 years they’ve had to feed dear.
The Division of Wildlife will only consider feeding animals if there’s a chance more than 30 percent of adult female deer will die in a winter, and that’s how bad it looks this year.
Now, they’re sending people out on snowmobiles and hiking out in snowshoes to feed deer at about 20 spots around Eagle and Wolcott.
Even for someone who doesn’t see deer every day ” it’s easy to tell many of them are struggling to survive. They look thin and scrawny.
On the hillsides, you see the tops of sagebrush sticking up through the snow, stripped bare and worthless. You see where deer have pulled the bark off juniper trees, which briefly helps the hunger, but doesn’t give them much nutrition.
Will, an area manager with the Division of Wildlife, points to a spot where a deer had tried digging through the snow to find buried leaves, but it doesn’t look like it found much. It’s too tiring to dig, and deer instinctually know when exhausting themselves isn’t worth the effort.
“There’s nothing there for them,” Will said. “The energy they would spend trying to get that food wouldn’t be worth how much they find.”
The snow cat helps deer in another way. The packed trail made by the snowcat allows the deer to navigate the hills without having to struggle through the snow.
“They love the trails we make for them ” otherwise, they’re belly-deep in snow,” Will said. “That takes a lot of work for them to get through.”
No matter how mild a winter may be, cold weather is always tough for animals. Winter is typically when the sick, the young and the old die.
Mike Martin, an Eagle resident, is one of dozens of people who have volunteered to help out with the feeding operation. As an avid outdoorsman and hunter, he understands starvation is a normal part of winter, but can also see for himself how tough this winter has been.
“I’m out every day looking, and some deer are too weak to get over fences they get stuck behind,” Martin said. “Seeing them starve is not what I want to see.”
Many of these deer haven’t experienced a truly tough Colorado winter, said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Division of Wildlife.
So, when deer seek out those mountain valleys where they’ve found winter food in the past, they’ve found almost nothing this year and are often trapped in these valleys by towering snow drifts.
When the deer aren’t trapped, they venture out of their comfort zones looking for food, which means they’ll be coming closer to roads, homes and humans.
The Division of Wildlife has been handling most of the feeding for the past couple weeks, but will soon be leaning more heavily on volunteers. Martin, who’s help unload hay a coupe times, said he’s eager to get out and help.
Feeding deer is a labor-intensive process, and the Division of Wildlife is still looking for volunteers. Around 60 individuals and organizations have signed up so far.
Volunteers will be needed to unload food from trucks or even take deer feed to feeding sites, which may require using a snowmobile, or for more remote locations, a pair of snowshoes and the ability to hike a distance with a backpack.
Deer need about three pounds of food a day to survive, and the Division of Wildlife will probably use about 3,000 pounds of food a day.
Residents in the Eagle area interested in volunteering can contact Division of Wildlife Volunteer Coordinator Linda Edwards at email@example.com. The Division of Wildlife is not looking for volunteers outside the Eagle area.
Money donations can be given through the Division of Wildlife Web site at http://wildlife.state.co.us.
Donations are also being sought from those who can provide trucking services or fuel to haul feed to the Eagle area. Trucking services and corporate donations are coordinated through Division of Wildlife Marketing Director Debbie Lininger at (303) 291-7160.
Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A Nov. 30 to Governor Polis and the Eagle County Commissioners from Beaver Creek Resorts Company – as well as the towns of Vail, Avon, Eagle and Minturn – requests a variance program which would allow businesses to remain open.