Affects 153,000 acres in Gunnison Basin
With area deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn antelope herds still fighting to survive this winter, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has expanded its temporary closure of area public lands to exclude all human activity including snowmobiling, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing and dog-walking.
The closure affects 153,000 acres of public lands in the Gunnison Basin, including popular recreation areas like Lost Canyon and Cabin Creek, through
"We try very hard not to close public lands," says BLM public affairs specialist Mel Lloyd. "This is just unprecedented with the snowpack, extreme temperatures and trying to reduce the stress on the herds," Lloyd says, noting she’s unaware of any similar closure in the Gunnison Basin in the past 30 years.
Lloyd says the BLM initially tried to eliminate just motorized traffic on BLM lands to reduce impact on the herds. However, "We still had too much foot traffic," she says. The traffic pushed the animals away from feeding areas that were established by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in mid-January to deliver specialized feed to endangered herds. "After consulting with the county, the (Division of Wildlife), the Forest Service and the public, people very much supported the full closure," Lloyd says.
According to a BLM press release dated Monday, January 28, the emergency feeding operations themselves have sparked the public’s curiosity, resulting in an increased human presence at the feeding areas. The agency says the disturbances prompted the need to revise temporary closures, along with the need to add several areas to the temporary closure.
The DOW says the emergency feeding program is in full operation with feed being distributed to big game animals at 87 sites in the Gunnison Basin.
DOW spokesman Joe Lewandowski said on Tuesday the department estimates it is feeding between 4,500 to 5,000 deer, 350 pronghorn, and 2,300 elk.
The feeding effort is being aimed at mule deer and pronghorn because their natural food sources are completely covered with snow. Elk, which are well-adapted to severe cold, are being provided hay in select areas only to keep them away from deer feeding sites and ranchers’ haystacks. "Those elk were really hammering the hay stores," Lewandowski says.
The DOW began airlifting haybales by helicopter to more remote areas to feed elk on Sunday, January 27.
Feeding is being done by DOW staff and volunteers. About 150 people have signed on to work as volunteers in the effort and the DOW is not soliciting more volunteers at this time.
According to the DOW, one problem facing wildlife officials is that some people are feeding deer inappropriate food. Deer are browsers and survive mainly on shrub-type vegetation. They cannot survive on hay, pet food, corn, birdseed, table scraps, etc.
"Unnatural food hurts deer more than it helps them," says J Wenum, area wildlife manager for the Gunnison area.
Wildlife officials recommend that property owners knock snow off of shrubs and pack down areas with snowshoes or skies to allow deer to move around in snow more easily. The DOW said in a press release this week that even though winter conditions are difficult in the basin now, snow came late, allowing deer to feed on natural vegetation until mid-December. Consequently, the body condition of many deer still appears to be good at this time.
Wildlife managers note, however, that the tough conditions mean that mortality among deer will likely be higher than average. In a normal winter, 12 percent to 18 percent of the population will die. Most susceptible to harsh winter conditions are fawns and older bucks.
"We’re not trying to save every deer in the Gunnison Basin. More deer will probably die this year than in average years. But our feeding program is meant to avoid a catastrophic die-off," Wenum says.