Agency aims to help Basin’s deer and elk survive
Gunnison Basin deer and elk herds have a few good meals coming to them this month. With snow piling up and temperatures falling, the Colorado Division of Wildlife is planning to launch a rare winter feeding operation as soon as next week to help the herds survive the winter.
Colorado Division of Wildlife public affairs specialist Joe Lewandowski says his agency looks at winter conditions and predicts how they will affect local herds. “When it appears that the winter-related mortality rate could exceed 30 percent of females, that’s a trigger for us to go ahead and do a feeding operation,” he says. The last large-scale feed occurred in 1997, with another conducted in the mid-1980s.
Lewandowski says the herds don’t appear to be too bad off but that may change as winter conditions continue. Each winter, he says, “Big game animals are barely surviving. They’ll lose 30 percent of their body weight over the winter.”
Big snows and cold temperatures make it even more difficult for the animals to survive. “We’ve had some reports of fawns up to their necks in snows,” Lewandowski says, noting the animals use up valuable fat stores to move through the area and forage for food, which has a limited nutritional value in winter.
Lewandowski says this operation will focus mostly on deer herds, which tend to be less hardy than elk. The division estimates there are approximately 20,000 deer in the Gunnison Basin. As soon as next week, the DOW, along with volunteers, will start going out to the herds and feeding them specialized wafers designed to meet the animal’s nutritional needs. The efforts will focus on public lands, including those managed by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.
Lewandowski could not estimate the cost of the overall operation but said, “It’s not cheap.” To help offset costs, the DOW is seeking volunteers who are experienced outdoorsmen and women to help them deliver feed to animals. “We will be needing a lot of volunteers to do this,” he says. In particular, they’re looking for people who have access to Snowcats, snowmobiles and other backcountry transportation to transport the food.
Lewandowski says the operation will likely continue for a month, at least.
Lewandowski says the feeding operation is necessary to ensure herds survive the winter—particularly as development encroaches farther into their habitat. “If we lost 30 percent of females, it could take years for the herd to recover,” he says. “That’s a lot of critters.”
He also points out that hunting is a revenue source for Gunnison County, making the herds’ survival an economic issue. “Wildlife is extremely important to the Gunnison County economy,” he says.
While the DOW is planning to launch the feeding program, the public is urged not to feed deer and elk on their own. “They have very specific nutritional needs and they could be speeding an [animal’s] death,” he says. If people have numerous animals on their property, they can contact the DOW about possibly setting up a feeding station.
Citizens interested in volunteering are invited to contact volunteer coordinator Jennifer Klessner at (970) 375-6704 after Monday, January 14.