Winter woes for big game

Deer in winter in a sunny day

BOISE — It’s been a bad winter. Icy roads, blowing drifts and heavy snowpacks have created headaches for residents. But while humans have homes to protect them from the conditions, big game face the brunt of the season in the backcountry.

“Undoubtedly, with it being a harder winter, we would anticipate higher mortality,” Idaho Fish and Game Regional Wildlife Manager Curtis Hendricks said.

Add to that the devastation wrought by the Henry’s Creek Fire on key winter ranges in the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area, and there’s a lot to be worried about.

“Obviously, the fire removed a lot of the brush where these deer used to spend their winters,” he said.

One of the biggest problems for deer and elk is that snowpacks have become heavily crusted, presenting two big problems.

First, it takes more energy to move around, crashing through the snow crust with each step. Deer and elk enter their winter ranges with winter fat supplies which they rely on like a battery to maintain them through the difficult months. Harder traveling means their batteries drain more quickly.

Second, it’s harder for deer and elk to paw through the snow to uncover winter forage — especially sagebrush and bitterbrush — which help them to recharge their batteries. Less food means their batteries recharge slower.

Further east, in areas such as the Teton Valley and Island Park, deep snow presents a similar problem.

It’s still early, so not many deaths have been observed, Hendricks said. The question is how many of those batteries will run dry before spring brings a resurgence in food resources.

“We wouldn’t anticipate (mortality) being high yet,” Hendricks said. “Most animals still have enough fat and energy reserves.”

It’s in mid- to late-March that deaths might begin showing up in earnest, he said.

There are positive signs as well.

After the Henry’s Creek Fire, Mule Deer Initiative Coordinator Matt Pieron and Tex Creek Regional Wildlife Biologist Ryan Walker were both extremely concerned about the wintering mule deer herd. One of the biggest potential problems is that mule deer have a high degree of “fidelity” to small winter ranges — meaning they will often congregate in dense groups in the same small areas of specific canyons year after year.

With sagebrush and bitterbrush, the deer’s main winter food resources, devastated by the fire, they worried that the deer might hunker down, exhaust extremely limited food supplies and perish.

But Hendricks said that so far the deer appear to be adapting — spreading out across the landscape in small groups to exploit limited pockets of food.

“They’ve figured out: We can’t wad up in one big group,” Hendricks said.

And Hendricks said the emergency feeding program has been quite successful at keeping elk clustered at the feeding site, preventing them from spreading out and competing with mule deer.

But Hendricks said throughout eastern Idaho it’s been a terrible year for farmers worried about deer and elk feeding on their hay and winter wheat.

“A lot of them ended up in places that weren’t good for producers,” Hendricks said.

Staff have been stretched thin, racing around the region to “haze” game animals away from fields and to help farmers wrap their hay bales with deer-proof coverings.

“We’re using every tool in the toolbox,” Hendricks said. ”… We really appreciate our ability to work with landowners where we have depredation issues.”

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.