It's important to keep pets away from wildlife in winter
The current unseasonal appearance of spring has many Western Slope residents out and about, some hiking, some biking, some getting an early start on the shed antler season.
This decidedly un-February weather also has caught wildlife off guard, exposing them on their usually isolated winter ranges to some unexpected disturbance.
Part of that disturbance comes from the dogs accompanying human recreationists, and although a February thaw may signal a season of rebirth to you, wildlife still has a lot of winter ahead before things start to get better.
In 1889, American artist Homer Winslow made a series of paintings about deer hunting, including a practice called hounding, where several dogs are used to track and run a deer.
The practice was controversial 125 years ago and remains so today, but in that span, dogs and deer haven’t changed.
Not only deer but elk, moose and pronghorn, as well. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is warning dog owners that by late winter, many big game animals susceptible to dog harassment are pregnant females.
Recently, state wildlife managers launched a campaign reminding pet owners that a harassing dog can cause an animal to expend much-needed calories, possibly leading to mortality of both the adult animal and its unborn calves or fawns.
Although there may be some danger to the dog from irate wildlife, there is even more risk if a law enforcement officer witnesses the dog chasing wildlife.
Ron Velarde, Northwest Regional Manager for Parks and Wildlife, said a little-known Colorado law gives law officers the authority to kill dogs chasing wildlife.
“The last thing any officer wants to do is to destroy someone’s dog,” Velarde said. “But pet owners should know that, because it is so harmful to wildlife, any law enforcement officer in Colorado is authorized by state statute to use whatever force is necessary to stop any dog that is chasing, injuring or killing a wild animal.”
Colorado law also levies a $274 fine, plus surcharges, for knowingly or negligently allowing a dog to harass wildlife.
Dogs that chase or harass wild animals are a year-round concern; however, they can make wintertime much more difficult for many big game animals.
“By this time of year, deer and elk are just trying to survive the deep snow and lack of forage,” said Libbie Miller, district wildlife manager in Steamboat Springs. “If dogs chase them, they quickly expend their already limited fat stores, leading to poor health and eventual death from starvation. That is what we are trying to prevent.”
Parks and Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton said the agency receives several reports of domestic dogs attacking wild animals every week.
He said an elk calf recently was found mauled on a porch in Steamboat Springs. The calf was missing the bottom of its mouth and had to be killed.
Even in areas where dogs are allowed to run off-leash, wildlife managers strongly recommend keeping pets on a leash whenever encounters with animals are likely.
This has been proven several times in the recent past in the Estes Park area when unleashed dogs harassed moose, who then charged both the dogs and their human companions.
The humans received injuries ranging from minor to requiring hospitalization.
Unfortunately, three of the moose were killed by Parks and Wildlife officers concerned about future mishaps.
“That can be the unfortunate result when people are irresponsible around wildlife,” said Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins of Steamboat Springs. “We understand that people enjoy letting their dogs run loose, but we ask that they think twice about the possible consequences. It can be a terrible feeling to have caused the death of an animal that was instinctively defending itself, or its young, from your dog.”
One suggestion is to leave dogs at home during winter rambles or at least keep your distance from wildlife.
“Watch wild animals from a distance with binoculars, a camera lens or a spotting scope,” said Watchable Wildlife Coordinator Trina Romero. “Remember — if the animal reacts to you or your dog, you are definitely too close.”