Feeding program continues to provide relief for animals
For the first time in the state’s history, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) has enacted a closure of wildlife-related recreation on public land. On January 16, DOW director Tom Remington announced the closure of public lands in Gunnison Basin in order to reduce stress on the mule deer population.
Due to cold temperatures and deep snow, Remington said the area deer population is in danger of significant die-off. He hopes the closure will reduce strain on the animals.
At the DOW office in Gunnison, Remington told assembled reporters and the public that Gunnison Basin is the only place in Colorado where 100 percent of winter forage area for mule deer is covered in snow. As a result, the mule deer population is starving.
“Extremely cold temperatures, coupled with deep snow, has created an inability for the deer to feed,” he said. “We are implementing the closure to reduce the potential for added stress on what is an already stressful situation.”
The closure—from January 16 to May 15—includes recreational small game hunting, mountain lion hunting, predator or fur-bearer hunting, and the collection of or possession of shed antlers.
Also prohibited is the collection of big horn sheep skulls and horns from the Division of Wildlife’s designated sheep area—Unit S 70—above Almont.
Fishing is the only wildlife-related recreation still allowed, according to DOW officials.
The closure covers the entire Gunnison Basin below 9,500 feet. It extends south from Crested Butte and Taylor Reservoir to the Lake City area, including most of Curecanti National Recreation Area. The closure also extends south and east of Gunnison toward Cochetopa and Monarch Passes.
The Bureau of Land Management announced the closure of public lands to motorized vehicles until April 30. The closed areas include north of Highway 50 between Dillon Mesa and West Antelope Creek; north of Highway 50 from east of Gunnison to the Forest boundary near Doyleville and south of Highway 50, east of Highway 114, north of Camp Kettle Gulch and west of Razor Creek.
Southwest DOW spokesman Joe Lewandowski asked that all persons recreating in the Gunnison Basin avoid disturbing the area ungulates. He said snowmobiles, skiers and snowshoers would further stress the animals if they came into close contact.
“Observe the wildlife through binoculars,” he suggested. “If they’re looking at you, you are probably too close.”
In conjunction with the closure, Remington said a massive mule deer feeding program was being implemented to stave off possible starvation of the area population. Pronghorn antelope would also be fed by the DOW to maintain body condition.
Remington said the DOW would feed area elk in order to keep them away from the deer-feeding areas and the highway.
“We will be baiting them to keep them away from the feed lines,” he said. “It is not our intent to feed the elk to maintain their body condition.”
Remington said the elk can manage the deep snow; the biggest danger to them at this time is possible conflict with vehicles as they are driven onto plowed roadways in order to avoid the deep snow.
Unlike the other ungulates of the area, Remington said, mule deer and pronghorns are unable to effectively forage when the snow is deep and crusty.
According to DOW southwest regional manager Tom Spezze, initial feeding efforts have targeted about 1,300 of the 21,000-member Gunnison Basin mule deer population. Ultimately, the DOW hopes to feed 8,000 deer during the planned 60-day effort.
Spezze said the mild fall helped the deer maintain body condition so far, but he said the extreme cold and deep snow was quickly taking its toll. “We’re hoping the next couple of storms miss us,” he said.
Spezze also said any additional nights of temperatures dipping to 30-below could have devastating effects on the stressed population.
Lewandowski said as of Tuesday, January 22, the DOW had established 50 mule deer feeding sites throughout the Gunnison Basin.
In addition to the deer feeding sites, Lewandowski said the DOW has established four pronghorn feeding sites. “They are coming down to accept the feed, which is good because pronghorns are notoriously tough to feed,” he said.
Lewandowski said most of the pronghorn seem to be moving around looking for food, and he credited a mild fall for their vitality in the face of such harsh conditions. According to Lewandowski, the animals were able to fatten up right until the point the first snow hit. “Their body condition looks pretty good,” he said.
Remington said the DOW had $400,000 budgeted for the feeding program; however on January 20, Colorado governor Bill Ritter announced he was asking for an additional $1.5 million to be released from the Wildlife Cash Fund. The fund is supported by hunting and fishing licenses and other fees.
Gunnison area wildlife manager J Wenum asked people not to try to feed the deer, because the deer are unable to digest rich sources such as hay. He said people who are aware of starving animals should contact the DOW. He suggested the best thing for people to do who had deer coming around their property looking for food was to make forage available.
“Knock the snow off some sagebrush,” Wenum said.
Lewandowski emphatically seconded Wenum’s concern. “I just saw 10 deer that were eating hay and now they’re dead,” he said.
The last time the DOW implemented a large-scale feeding program was the winter of 1983-84. Remington said the DOW has the authority to implement such measures when 30 percent of the doe population is in danger of imminent collapse. The females out-survive the fawns and males, according to Remington.
The feeding effort is in part staffed and financed by the public. About 200 people have already volunteered to take part in the effort and Lewandowski says at this point the DOW feels it has enough help from the public. “We’ll put a call out if we need anymore,” he said.
Contact the Colorado Division of Wildlife for more information.