High habitats

Lack of snow offers easy grazing, but future problems loom

Low snow depths allow mule deer and elk herds to move and utilize more habitat in the winter, preventing the damage that happens when deep snows prevent animals from moving into ungrazed areas.

Good winter habitat is critical for deer survival. In years when summer moisture allows good plant growth, healthy brush communities stick out of the snow and provide essential food for wintering big game.

In those winters when snow piles up to the eaves and fences are hidden by billowing drifts, wildlife managers gird for the time when forage finally runs out and some sort of alternative feeding plan is improvised for deer and elk.

This winter, even though bone-racking cold is sweeping across much of Colorado’s prime habitat and range, much of the high country has a less-than-generous cover of snow, and wildlife managers face a different problem.

Most wildlife managers take the lack of snow as a mixed blessing, knowing the problems minimized now will perhaps be magnified when summer rolls around.

“The bottom line is that we’ve had a prolonged period of severe cold, but snow depths are probably average or below average across much of our winter range,” said Brandon Diamond, terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Gunnison. “Snow consistency is soft, and in many places south- and west-facing exposures have bare ground.”

Statewide snow reports from last week say the snow depth in the Gunnison Basin is 66 percent of long-term average, a number representative of snowpacks around the Western Slope.

That general lack of snow, while beneficial for wildlife in January, reminds us last summer’s drought-like conditions left soil moisture depleted and is something that bodes ill for later this year.

“Our range condition is a real issue this winter and will continue to be an issue come spring,” Diamond said. “The critters are definitely burning a lot of calories keeping warm, but at least food is accessible and travel is not impaired.”

“At the moment, animals are moving around quite a bit and are not having much issue finding forage.”

A crystal-ball gazer would be hard-pressed to say what the coming spring holds, given March and April are the snowiest months and a handful of big spring storms can recharge water tables and snowpacks in a few short weeks.

But that short-of-average snowpack across the Western Slope means a lot of snow has to fall to bring those snow depths to average.

What this holds for ranchers and wildlife managers is a period of watching and waiting, hoping for something other than a repeat of last year, when early forage production soaked up whatever soil moisture was left over from the dry winter.

By late summer, when forage should be in full production in preparation for the winter, many plants already had died back, leaving little food value in their dried stems.

“In so many places, it got so dry (the forage) just didn’t produce,” said Perry Will, Area 8 wildlife manager from Glenwood Springs. “Usually there is some residual stuff in lots of places, but this year in some places you hardly see grass sticking up through the snow.”

A mild winter means animals aren’t bunched up but are able to roam, “feeding here and there and utilizing the available habitat and then moving on,” said J Wenum, area wildlife manager for the Gunnison Basin.

This spreads out the pressure on the habitat, unlike snowy winters when animals gather on feed grounds and quickly deplete the resources, sometimes to the point grass and forbs take years to recover.

But without that soil moisture to kick-start the spring green-up, another summer of drought will make winter next year at this time even more challenging.

“At this point my biggest concern is what we get for moisture for next year,” Wenum said. “Last year we saw that hot, dry start, when we got early forage production, but then it dried up by midsummer.

“We finally got the late-summer monsoonal flows, and those helped. Now the key will be how much moisture we get this year going into next summer.”


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