Big snows could stress wildlife | SummitDaily.com

Big snows could stress wildlife

BOB BERWYNsummit daily news

Summit Daily/Brad Odekirk

SUMMIT COUNTY – While this season’s early storms are a boon for local powder hounds and resorts, the hefty snowpack could mean tough times ahead for deer and elk, especially if the wintry weather continues. In some parts of Summit County, the snowpack is nearly double the historic average for this time of year and deeper than in most recent seasons. Deer and elk have already made a big move toward lower-elevation winter range at the north end of the county, said Tom Kroening, Colorado Division of Wildlife manager for the area. Kroening said the summer season was exceptionally good, so the animals started off the winter in healthy shape. For now, it’s a waiting game, with wildlife managers watching closely to see if the heavy snowfall continues, and if it will have any significant effects on local herds.While elk, with their larger and heavier bodies, are able to move through deep snow and find food, deer in particular could be susceptible to increased winter stress, Kroening said. And human activity, whether it’s hiking, cross-country skiing or snowmobiling, can exacerbate the situation. In some cases, the animals exist on a fine line between caloric intake and energy expenditures during winter. Additional stress from human activity could be a life or death factor in some situations, Kroening said.

Kroening said the best policy is to stay away from deer and elk, and to be sure to keep dogs leashed. Forcing deer and elk to move away through deep snow could require them to expend more energy and push them over the brink, he said.Areas of concern include Tenderfoot Mountain between Dillon and the county landfill, and the Soda Creek drainage near Summit Cove, where a resident elk herd spends the winter moving around the Lowry Campground on Swan Mountain Road. The area west of Gold Hill, north of Breckenridge, is another hot spot, Kroening said.Development factor?Another key piece of the wildlife puzzle in Summit County and the rest of Colorado is the extraordinary rate of population growth and associated development of roads, residential areas and recreational amenities such as golf courses. In Summit County, traffic on local highways can impede the movement of deer and elk to winter ranges, while subdivision development cuts off access to some historic movement routes.

In parts of the state, development is eating away at crucial lower-elevation habitat, according to the Division of Wildlife. “We are very concerned about the loss of winter range in the Roaring Fork Valley and other parts of the state,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman Randy Hampton. “Now we need that winter range. Where those critters go is now a much bigger issue because of high snow amounts.”Shallow snowpack and mild winters mean easier living for deer and elk because the grasses and other plants they eat are easier to get to. Heavier snow crowds the animals into smaller pieces of land, which might not provide enough food to sustain them.The loss of winter range is particularly noticeable in some of the rapidly urbanizing corridors near resorts, for example in between Carbondale and Aspen.”I think we’re in a constant decline of winter range because of development,” said wildlife officer Kevin Wright. While there are areas of public land that still provide good habitat, some of the private land in the Roaring Fork Valley that historically provided winter range is being lost to development, he said.

The same lands on south-facing slopes and in the valley floor that are popular with the animals during winters are popular with homebuilders, something that holds true for most mountain resort areas in Colorado.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.