Animals hard to find this hunting season in western Colorado

Deer will nibble on dried grass when their preferred shrubs aren’t available but these senescent grasses offer very little nutritional value. Last year’s drought caused grasses and shrubs to go dormant early.

It didn’t take long for hunters this fall to realize something was different.

Reports from hunters across the Western Slope said animals were hard to find, even in places where abundant elk and deer are expected.

“Where we hunted on Grand Mesa, I don’t think anyone killed an elk,” said Grand Junction taxidermist Darryl Powell. “We hunted hard all season but it wasn’t until late on the last day we saw a couple of cows.”

Similar stories were heard in many places across western Colorado, and while Powell said he’s seen a lot of “nice but not great” animals come through his shop on 29 Road, enough hunters went home empty handed that some questions arose about the effects of the drought on the state’s elk and deer herds.

Much of the hunting season saw drought conditions continue across the West, which biologists say caused many animals to leave their historic summer grounds early is search of forage.

Although a casual glance at winter range might not indicate anything different, biologists say the dry conditions mean a lack of much-needed forage for wildlife.

Elk can survive eating dried grasses but deer are browsers, feeding on serviceberry, sagebrush and other shrubs during the winter.

Until their digestive systems can adapt to the change in feed, a mouthful — or a stomach full — of dried grass or hay does them virtually no good.

“Without the proper forage, a deer can starve on a full stomach,” said Brad Petch, senior wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Region.

Petch said biologists this summer reported most grasses, forbs and shrubs were dry by late summer, which means little protein and other nutrients were available.

“By the end of the summer there was evidence of hydrologic stress on lot of shrubs,” he said. “Serviceberry and other brush turned early and the sage turned grey earlier than normal.”

Jim Garner, wildlife conservation biologist with Parks and Wildlife in Montrose, said last spring was so dry some of the native plant seeds used in restoration efforts never sprouted.

“It got so dry you lost a year (of growth) even if you got the seed planted,” Garner said.

The last time such extensive dry conditions persisted was in 2002, when conditions were drier and the rangelands and the animals suffered more.

“This spring the range managed to survive pretty well off banked moisture and that got the pronghorn through the first lactation,” Petch said. “What we saw in the 2001-2002 period lasted a lot longer but in 2002 we didn’t have a winter (such as 2010) to (buffer) the drought effects.”

Petch said animals taken by hunters in the early seasons looked “pretty good” in the least drought affected part of the range but that likely was because the range still carried moisture from the heavy snow of 2010-2011 winter.

“The (2011-2012) drought was serious but remember it came on the heels of a 10-year winter,” Petch said. “So soil moisture was really high and that carried us through the spring.”

The best news would be a snowy wet winter to replace much-needed soil moisture in time for green-up next spring.

“So far, the weather forecasters are having trouble seeing that far ahead,” Petch said. “If (the drought) persists into (another) year, that’s when I think we’ll start seeing the effect.”


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