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In search of food

Jane Stebbins

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth story in a five-part series on the challenges Summit County faces with this year’s drought conditions.

SUMMIT COUNTY – Nothing but blue skies.

That’s all Todd Malmsbury could see from his window at the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) in Denver in early May. Blue skies mean no rain, and no rain could spell trouble for the state’s wildlife.

But Malmsbury isn’t giving up hope yet.

“May normally is one of the wettest months in Colorado,” he said, acknowledging that although March typically is the snowiest, little precipitation was recorded in the High Country then. “I can’t predict what the weather’s going to be.”

Although snowpack in Summit County this past winter was about half of normal, it still is possible summer rain showers could help fill reservoirs, lakes, streams and rivers in the area.

Malmsbury said he’ll start worrying next year – and then only if this summer is drier than normal, and is followed by another low-snow winter and another spring and summer with little precipitation.

Extended periods – not just one summer – in which rain doesn’t fall can adversely affect wildlife.

“Black bears is an obvious one,” he said. “If we continue to have drought conditions, the amount of natural forage will be reduced, and they’ll have to roam farther to find it.”

The easiest pickings, as many Summit County residents know, are found in Dumpsters, decks, garages and homes.

“We’re urging people to please, please, don’t leave out food, trash, pet food, livestock, bird seed,” Malmsbury said. “Bears learn bad habits and come back. If they come back and find nothing, they’ll likely move on. But if they come back and find food, you could have a bear companion for the summer and fall.”

Tom Kroening, CDOW district wildlife manager for Summit County, said bears that usually don’t come out of hibernation for another month already are on the prowl.

“The bears we have coming out right now went into hibernation without as much food as they usually had,” he said. “When they first come out, they graze on grass, and they don’t have much in the way of grass. It’s amazing.”

Problems will escalate if rain doesn’t fall to ensure good berry growth, a large part of a black bear’s diet.

“It depends on what happens in the next two months,” he said. “Hopefully, we won’t get freezes; they’ve caused problems in the past. They’ll kill whatever berries we had.”

Fish, particularly those in Lake Dillon and other deep lakes, likely will be unaffected by a drought, Malmsbury said.

“But if water moves more slowly, it gets warmer and allows disease to occur that takes trout populations and reduces their numbers,” he said. “We’re clearly going to have more problems with bears, and the impacts on fisheries … Maybe not this year, but next year, if the drought continues.”

And as bad as things are in the central mountains, conditions are much worse in the southern part of the state.

“Durango got almost no winter at all,” Malmsbury said. “Their rivers might be 15 percent of normal flow. If we don’t get any moisture at all, the impacts could be fairly great. The main thing we need is more rain.”

Deer and elk also can be affected by grass that doesn’t green up in the spring and summer rain. But they often just seek higher ground, Kroening said.

“We got enough snow it’ll green things up, up there,” he said. “They’ll find vegetation. Animals adapt pretty well; they’re pretty resourceful. But if we don’t get summertime rains, that’ll change the complexion of everything.”

“If we get an extended drought, there will be less forage for game,” Malmsbury said. “They’ll need to congregate where available water sources are, and if they go into winter in poor condition, they’ll be more susceptible to difficult times.”

Anything could happen: early cold temperatures, an early snowfall or a cold rain that freezes and makes it difficult to forage at all.

“I’m not predicting that’s going to occur; it’s just a scenario,” Malmsbury said.

Squirrels and other ground-dwelling critters tend to fare well throughout extreme weather conditions. Birds fly elsewhere.

“We’re hoping for at least normal rains,” Kroening said. “I haven’t seen anything worse as far as winter’s concerned. People I’m talking to are saying it’s extremely dry. If we don’t get moisture in July, August – August especially – then it’ll really affect us later on.”

Jane Stebbins can be reached at 668-3998 ext. 228 or jstebbins@summitdaily.com.


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