Garfield County mule deer population doing OK
SILT MESA – While mule deer struggle to survive amidst four feet of snow and temperatures as low as -20 degrees in the Gunnison basin, they look fine from Bob Elderkin’s home looking out on the rugged Grand Hogback.
“They look like they’re in pretty good shape,” he said over the phone Thursday. “It’s a fairly normal winter right now.”Elderkin is president of the local chapter of the Colorado Mule Deer Association. He said the snow depth near his home north of Silt hasn’t been much over eight inches all winter. It isn’t deep enough to cover all the sagebrush and cheat grass the deer eat.”Any place you have a little bank or something that’s fairly steep and faces to the south or west, there’s not much snow cover on it,” Elderkin said. “They’re pawing down through it and eating that cheaters readily.”That’s not the case for about 21,000 mule deer in the Gunnison basin, where the snowpack is 143 percent of average and the Colorado Division of Wildlife has begun emergency feeding operations to prevent starvation. The feeding is expected to cost $400,000 and last up to 60 days with about 30 DOW workers and 250 volunteers pitching in.”There’s a very, very different situation going on down there,” said DOW spokesperson Randy Hampton. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not keeping an eye on what’s going on in the rest of the state.”He said wind chill Wednesday morning brought the low in the Gunnison basin to -45 degrees. The basin presents a unique challenge compared to other parts of the state because there’s not really anywhere for deer to go once the snow sets in there, Hampton said.
“We are monitoring around the Aspen area, the Eagle area, around Meeker and Steamboat Springs, but at the present time we haven’t had any snowfall substantial for the last couple of days,” Hampton said. “For now we don’t have plans to feed in other areas.”Big game animals lose 30 percent of their body weight during a normal winter and deer are the most susceptible of the big game species to extreme winter conditions.Elderkin said that when herbaceous vegetation goes dormant and dries up in early September, deer go hungry “and at that point it’s a race to green grass.””What’s really hard on deer is when you get deep snow and especially if you get bitter cold early in the winter,” he said. “By coming that early, you speed up the amount of body reserves the animals use just to stay warm. That’s when you get big die-offs.”Hampton stressed that people should not feed deer on their own. Deer cannot digest hay or alfalfa, he said, and although they do eat it. There have been situations where deer have actually died by filling up on hay or alfalfa fed to them, he added, because deer like to eat it but can’t process nutrients from it. Sagebrush is the primary food for most mule deer.Deer in Gunnison are being fed “a specially formulated high-energy wafer developed by DOW scientists during the 1980s,” the DOW said.
The DOW estimates there are about 11,000 mule deer in the northern part of Garfield County, north of the Colorado River. In the Roaring Fork Valley from Glenwood Springs to Aspen, the DOW estimates there are about 16,500 mule deer. Another population south of Glenwood Canyon is estimated at 6,000.Snow covering up big game animal’s food may not be a problem forever. Elderkin said this is the first winter in seven years that any amount of snow cover has lasted more than a few days.”I’m sure it has something to do with global warming, but I don’t know,” he said. “As far as what I can see around here, I don’t think there’s any argument about global warming.”Contact Pete Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.orgPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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