Wildlife feeding program not forgotten despite mild winter in Gunnison

The memories are still fresh of the massive emergency feeding program the Division of Wildlife undertook two years ago this month as winter clamped an iron fist around the Gunnison high country.

Record snows and accompanying cold forced deer and elk into the Gunnison Basin, where an immense, four-month effort by the DOW and scores of volunteers prevented what surely could have been a terrible die-off of wildlife.

At one time, the DOW was feeding about 9,500 deer, an estimated half of all deer in the Gunnison Basin.

This winter, all those hard-working volunteers are sleeping much more peacefully at home.

“The short of it is that up to this point, this winter has in my opinion been exceptionally mild,” said DOW terrestrial biologist Brandon Diamond in Gunnison. “It’s been so very different from the last couple of winters we’ve experienced.”

The Jan. 1 snow report from the National Resources Conservation Service said that while snowfall during December was near average across most of the state, it was much less than received in the previous two Decembers.

“This year’s snowpack is only 72 percent of that measured last year on January 1, and is only about 80 percent of the January 1, 2008, readings,” said Allen Green, state conservationist with the Conservation Service.

With temperatures this week around Gunnison expected to top out around 30 degrees, which is absolutely balmy for Gunnison in mid-January, weather and snow conditions aren’t nearly what they were two years ago.

At that time, one DOW biologist said deer “were pouring” out of the surrounding hills to get away from belly-deep snow, only to find similar conditions in the valley.

This year, however, deer and elk haven’t yet been forced from their wintering patterns, Brandon said.

“I just finished all my classification flights and all the critters look to be in good shape,” Diamond said. “I saw them scattered from high to low elevations and they all seemed to be doing quite well.”

It’s still too early in the winter to count all your blessings, however.

The state usually receives about 40 percent of its maximum seasonal snowfall by Jan. 1, Green said.

With 60 percent of the accumulation season ahead, and under the current conditions, “we need to receive about 110 percent of average snowfall from now until mid-April to reach our average maximum totals,” Green said.

Winter is a time of slow starvation for all wildlife, and late-winter, early spring storms can have a disastrous effect on game populations. Even if the winter isn’t particularly snowy, a late-arriving spring could have a long-time effect on herds.

That happened in 1994, when the spring green up came too late to save thousands of deer, and Colorado’s deer herds and deer hunting felt the brunt of that calamity for nearly a decade.

But Diamond continues to keep his fingers crossed and the crystal ball polished.

“It’s so hard to say, we still have the chance to get a lot of snow, but up to this point we’re looking at a pretty mild winter,” he said.

We’ll ask him again in five months.


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