Thousands of area mule deer are being successfully fed
The massive effort to feed the Gunnison Basin mule deer herd will continue into the spring, Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) Area Manager J Wenum told Gunnison County commissioners at their regular board meeting on February 19.
“When things start to green up and the animals disperse to where they are supposed to be feeding, then we’ll know it’s time to back off,” Wenum said of the DOW feeding effort.
The effort was initiated because unusually heavy snow has effectively covered the animals’ natural forage throughout the Gunnison Basin and wildlife experts determined that the area mule deer herd was in imminent danger of collapse unless a feeding program was implemented.
Wenum said Gunnison snow pack was nearing a record this year. “Currently we’re in sixth place of all-time records that have been kept since the late 1800s,” he said.
According to Wenum, the DOW is feeding a little over 8,000 deer, using 124 feeding sites. In addition to the mule deer feeding, Wenum said, the DOW was feeding about 530 pronghorn antelope.
Although Wenum said the deer feeding was going well, feeding the antelope presented more of a challenge. “The pronghorn, we’re really having struggles with,” he said. “No one across the western U.S. has found a successful way to feed them with any kind of consistency, and we’re finding the same thing here.”
Wenum noted that the pronghorns rely on sight and speed for their defense and it was difficult to approach them without setting off their instinct to flee.
According to Wenum, the DOW is also feeding between 2,700 and 2,800 elk in order to bait them away from conflict areas. Although elk are better equipped to survive in deep snow, Wenum said the elk baiting was being undertaken in order to keep them away from highways and agricultural operations.
Wenum said the area feeding operation was being undertaken with the help of about 80 daily volunteers in addition to the 20 DOW staff. “We have folks cycling through on four-day stints, so we always have some experienced help on hand as well as the local folks who are pretty much dedicated to this everyday,” he said.
Besides the DOW, Wenum said the operation was being assisted by several different agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service, which have implemented closures of land under their jurisdiction in order to reduce stress on the deer and antelope populations. Currently, a large portion of public land in the Gunnison Basin is closed to recreation and travel until the local ungulates are out of danger.
Wenum said so far, the deer mortality appears to be fairly low—at least at the feed sites—which indicates the program is a success. “The mortality rates are ranging from zero at some of the smaller sites to 21 percent,” he said.
The average mortality rate, Wenum said, was about 11 percent, which is far lower than the 30 percent doe mortality that could trigger the collapse of the herd. These percentages were determined by on-site samples and Wenum said the DOW would not have a really accurate mortality estimate until they did their census next December and January. He said there are no estimates of pronghorn mortality at this time.
Wenum said the nearly $2 million DOW feeding effort was being expanded to areas near Eagle and Vail as well as the Creede area, but the money budgeted for the operation should last until spring.
Wenum thanked the other agencies, local governments and individuals who have assisted in the effort, which he termed “a huge undertaking.”
“Everybody I’ve interacted with on this thing as been wonderful to deal with,” he said.