Forest Service column: Winter habitat, solitude important to wildlife |

Forest Service column: Winter habitat, solitude important to wildlife

A colleague told me the other day about seeing a moose recently on the White River National Forest. They are becoming more common and are now seen in many new places where people customarily hike, ski and ride bicycles. This time of year moose, elk and mule deer are moving down to the low elevations of the valleys where there are communities, homes, highways and people. I now see hawks, geese and ravens perched on poles and fences during my drive to and from work; perched against the cold awaiting their next meal, or perhaps enjoying the sunshine. All this got me thinking about Colorado wildlife in winter, and the important role we humans have in their winter survival.

Why is winter difficult for wildlife?

Regardless of the size or species, if herbivore or carnivore, migratory or year-round resident, all birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and insects have evolved strategies to survive periods of the year when food resources are depleted and climate conditions are more harsh. During winter food is less available and less nutritious, while snow cover, cold temperatures and lack of sunlight place stress on an animal’s body condition and health. In most cases, animals are not consuming nearly as many calories as they expend to simply stay warm, perform necessary functions such as breathing, circulating blood circulation and metabolizing fat reserves, and move about as needed.

How do wildlife survive?

Big game, many birds and other animals will move to lower elevations in search of what food resources are available and to escape deep snow, colder temperatures and wind chill at higher elevations where they spend summer and fall. Other wildlife such as bats, bears, ground squirrels and amphibians will find places where the conditions are cold but secure and stable; there they rest in a very slow metabolic state, trying to use less calories than they took in over the summer and fall. Whatever the pathway, all are in a slow race to survive on little or no resources until a time in spring when harsh conditions change and food is more plentiful.

It’s common to see elk and mule deer when traveling past fields, forests and open country. Birds and small mammals are visible at backyard bird feeders and parks and around places we recreate outdoors. All seems to be fine. The animals just move away when we get to close, and later return.

However, the act of moving requires energy. Also, the more animals are disturbed and stressed, the more energy they must expend. This is because energy is expended until heartbeat and other body functions return to a stable state. This also means that the extra energy and fat they burn may be critical later on for winter survival.

In what ways can humans harm or help?

There are key locations on public land nearby local communities that are seasonally closed to hiking, dog-walking, biking and other recreation. These areas are set aside in winter to provide solitude to wildlife where some winter forage exists and winter conditions are not as harsh. Stay clear of these areas during critical winter months. There are plenty of other areas to recreate and have fun. Example of winter closures for wildlife protection include Avalanche Creek in the Crystal River Valley, and the Rio Grande trail from Catherine Bridge to Hooks Lane. Contact your local office of White River National Forest (, Bureau of Land Management (, Colorado Parks and Wildlife ( and county land offices for more information. Social media, websites and chatrooms not affiliated with these agencies don’t have the best, most accurate information; go to the experts. By the way, these agencies also have great resources for finding good places to recreate and see wildlife without causing impacts. For more information on how wildlife survive winter and good practices for viewing wildlife, navigate to

Phil Nyland is the district wildlife biologist for the Aspen and Sopris ranger districts. Contact him at 970-963-2266.

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