Winter may be hard on wildlife
ASPEN – Mother Nature and humans may unintentionally conspire to make it tougher for deer and elk to survive this winter.The early-season snowpack is already above normal in the region and, if it remains high, could make it difficult for big game to find enough to eat, state wildlife officials says. At the same time that nature is putting additional pressure on the beasts, development is chewing up winter range that can sustain the large numbers of deer and elk.
“Now we need that winter range. Where those critters go is now a much bigger issue for the Division of Wildlife” because of high snow amounts, said Randy Hampton, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.The snowpack has been average or below for about the last five years in much of Colorado. Mild winters mean easy pickings for deer and elk because food is more accessible.When heavy snow blankets their habitat, more animals crowd into smaller areas that may not be able to sustain them. There is high mortality among fawns and older animals, and their reproductive rates can drop because of the stress, Hampton said.Kevin Wright has witnessed the loss of winter range for 21 years as a wildlife officer between Carbondale and Aspen. “I think we’re in a constant decline of winter range because of development,” he said.
Some public lands continue to provide excellent winter range for elk, but private land that’s also provided historical winter range is disappearing, Wright said. It’s against wildlife division policy to discuss specific pieces of property, but Wright said many rural subdivisions have been developed in recent years in prime elk and bear habitat. The same south-facing slopes that are popular with the animals during winters are popular with homebuilders.The Bair Chase golf project between Carbondale and Glenwood Springs seems, at first glance, like a poster child for development chewing up winter range. A splinter group of a larger herd has taken up residence on the old ranch in recent winters and nibbled on the grass and other vegetation that protruded through the snow.This year the group found something wrong at its winter home. Heavy equipment stripped the pastures and natural grasslands bare in preparation of a golf course. The elk congregated along the old railroad corridor, a thin ribbon that provided the only vegetation for them to eat.But the old ranch and new golf project isn’t the prime winter range that the wildlife division wants to preserve. Flat land on valley floors rarely makes for the best winter range because it gets covered in heavy snow years, Hampton said. Land where bushes poke through and keep snow off the ground vegetation provides better winter range.
Elk flock to golf courses in low snow years because of easy access to grass.”There’s better habitat out there,” Hampton said. “Elk might have been utilizing that property because there hasn’t been a lot of snow in recent years.”When habitat is developed, the number of animals that can be sustained shrinks. Then the wildlife division must adjust the objective for the size of a local herd. When the objective shrinks, the wildlife division uses tools like increased hunting to bring numbers down.