Drought hits deer with a ‘double whammy’

Wintering deer depend on a year’s new growth on sagebrush and other brush to survive. When drought slows or prevents that new growth, the animals are forced to eat less-nutritious plants, which can lead to starvation.

The impacts of hard winters on wildlife are easy to see.

Drought, however, can be imperceptible but equally deadly.

“In terms of deer response, the drought is having much more significant impact than our hard winters,” said Darby Finley, terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Meeker. “I think now we are seeing the impacts on our winter range.”

Finley said “everything west of Colorado Highway 13, from Baggs (Wyo.) to Rifle” has been hit by the drought.

The lack of sufficient moisture means sagebrush and other plants don’t have the new growth deer depend on to get them through the winter.

“The vigor of those shrubs has definitely been played out to a certain degree, due to the drought cycle,” Finley said.

A curious side note is that during periods of drought (and less winter snow) fawn survival initially may be high, Finley said.

He said a few seasonal spring storms keep the early growth green, but that means more mouths to feed when the deer hit the winter range.

Winter-range deer depend on first-year leaders of new growth in shrubs, and if they aren’t available the deer start chewing the second-year growth, which is less nutritious, Finley said.

Plus, older deer will out-compete younger deer for the available food.

“And then they get competition from elk because that’s what elk eat when they can’t paw down through the snow” to grasses and forbs, Finley said. “It’s a double whammy. We’re still carrying those deer into the winter, and then, if we get a bad winter like 2007-2008, we take a big nose dive” in deer numbers, he said.

“All that makes it tough (for deer numbers) to rebound.”


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