Faced with a potential crisis situation in terms of snow depth, Colorado Parks & Wildlife has started a baiting program to lure congregating deer and elk herds away from U.S. Highway 50 on both sides of Gunnison.
CPW Area Manager J Wenum addressed a packed audience of over 100 concerned citizens in Gunnison last Thursday evening, January 19, Wenum characterized the prospect of baiting — and the potential of an organized wildlife feeding program in the Gunnison Valley if winter conditions continue to deteriorate — as a “no-win situation.”
In the event a feeding program does commence, Parks & Wildlife has begun a website signup list for volunteers with general and specialized skills “waiting in the wings.”
In cooperation with Bureau of Land Management, Parks & Wildlife has already begun a baiting program in which hay is scattered over the ground in designated BLM and Parks & Wildlife lands approximately a half-mile distant from the Highway 50 corridor. Baiting areas are located on both sides of Gunnison stretching 30 miles to the east along Highway 50 to the base of Monarch Pass, and 20 miles west on Highway 50 stretching past Blue Mesa Reservoir toward Montrose.
Wenum said wildlife along other highways in the Gunnison Basin, including Highway 149 near Lake City and Highway 135 toward Crested Butte, are also being impacted by winter snow, although not to the severity of heavily-travelled U.S. 50.
Scattered certified weed-free hay on the ground surface attracts solar gain and, in addition to being packed down by the animals, results in the snowpack settling. Depending on the weather the next two to four weeks, Wenum told his rapt audience that the baiting program could be expanded. In a worst case scenario with continuing heavy snowfall, Wenum said the established baiting areas could be switched to feeding grounds for starving animals.
Wenum said a CPW-sponsored feeding program is a “last resort” with determination by CWP’s State Director based on “anticipated 30 percent mortality of the adult female segment of a major big game population.”
CPW monitoring has been ongoing since last fall and especially since earlier this month with heavy snowfall in the Gunnison Valley on January 2, followed by an unusual rain event January 9 which resulted in a crust layer up to 1”-thick.
Baiting, as defined by Wenum per CPW regulations, is defined as the “use of feed to move or redistribute animals with no intent to support or maintain body condition.”
A clear downside to encouraging large numbers of animals to congregate in restricted areas is the potential for the spread of disease. Notable is the potential of spreading Chronic Wasting Disease which since last fall has been detected as close as neighboring Big Game Units 65 and 62 in the Montrose area; other disease potentials among congregated deer and elk herds are the intestinal ailment Pasteurellosis and AHD, Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease.
Also taken into consideration in initiating a Gunnison Basin baiting program and the prospect of a larger scale feeding program is, first and foremost, public safety. Wenum illustrated this point by commenting on a wildlife blockade of Highway 50 the previous night as a herd of upwards of 100 elk blocked traffic on Highway 50 east of Gunnison.
Also taken into consideration in the baiting program are access to the baiting sites and damage to range habitat, together with the overriding need for a cooperative stance between CPW and Federal agencies such as BLM, U.S. Forest Service, and National Park Serice (see separate boxed news release, this page).
As the baiting program ramps up, steps are being taken to limit disruptions to game herds which are already stressed. Wenum said temporary closures have gone into effect on CPW lands, with the potential of expanded temporary closures on critical BLM lands. The prohibition on antler shed collection has been extended to May 15, night hunting permits have closed, and small game hunting is now curtailed below 9,500’ elevation.
Quotas for mountain lion hunting have been met and are also now closed.
In broader context, Area Supervisor Wenum brought attention to preserving critical winter range. “If winter habitat doesn’t exist or is reduced, it has direct impacts on our big game population,” he said. He specifically mentioned threats to winter habitat posed by roads, energy development, subdivisions, and expanding recreation.
He said the BLM is encouraging limiting recreational uses on critical habitat this winter, with the potential of mandatory non-use if a feeding program is started. “Jumping on a snowmobile in these areas is definitely not appropriate for animals which are already in a stressful situation.”
As an overview of this winter’s severity in the Gunnison Valley, Wenum said that snow depth typically averages 49.8” for the entire winter.
As of last Thursday, January 19, snow depth in the valley according to Gunnison County Electric Assoc. stands at 54.6”, with an additional 3” to 6” forecast last weekend.
Long-term records indicate a truly severe winter occurs in the Gunnison Basin on average once per decade, most recent memory being the 103” snow depth which promped a wildlife feeding program during the winter of 2007-08.
Other heavy winters prior to 07-08 were 65.4” of snow 1996-97, and 80.6” snow depth 1983-84.
Wenums said there are already correlations — both similarities and key differences — between this winter and the last heavy snow year, 2007-08.
Both this year and 2007-08, animal herds were impacted by abrupt heavy snowfall. In 2007, a heavy 18”-deep snowfall occurred on December 6, prompting deer to move down into the valley, followed several weeks later by elk. The heavy snow was followed by weeks of extremely cold weather.
This year, by contrast, heavy snow occurred on January 2 and, most unusually, the January 9 rain resulting in a frozen crust which is difficult for the animals to penetrate. Unlike 2007-08, 2016-17 was characterized by a mild fall, with generally temperate temperatures which have continued to present. Deer and elk going into this winter are in “good condition,” according to Wenum, and that will contribute to their long-term survival.
Also different from 2007-08 and this winter is the fact that deer and elk didn’t migrate down into winter range until later. Elk herds were the first to
migrate down into the valley, Wenum said, three to four weeks ago, while deer herds didn’t drop down into winter feeding grounds until several weeks ago.
The earlier arrival of elk was beneficial since the herds eased later access for the deer. “This is good now,”
Wenum added, “but poses complications later if a feeding program is started since deer and elk require different diets.”
Asked from the audience, Wenum said the average winter survival rate for does is around 80-85 percent in any given winter, with a wider percentage range in terms of fawn survival varying from “the high 70s to the 50s”. As of last month and prior to the arrival of heavy snow, survival rates among the deer population were high, 99 percent survival for does, 93 percent for fawns.
As a “reality check,” Wenum said that a certain degree of winter mortality is a natural part of the cycle. “It’s a natural process,” he reiterated, “the question is the extent and for how long.”
Asked from the audience, Wenum said the larger, more robust constitution of elk makes them better equipped to handle winter depredations, while in many instances moose actually move up to higher elevations as the winter intensifies. In terms of deer constitution, Wenum said the animal is actually programmed to go into a “slow starve” during the winter months, a key aspect of their ultimate survival being the ability to rest. The animals’ water consumption during the heavist winter months also plummets.
Depending on the weather in coming weeks, the baiting program would be phased out if snow conditions improve or, conversely, “stepped up” with added snowdepth. “And if conditions really go to heck,” Wenum told potential volunteers, “we’ll need all the help we can get.”
In addition to starting a signup sheet for volunteers in the event a feeding program is started, Colorado Parks & Wildlife is also accepting online donations to defray costs of this winter’s baiting program or in the event feeding is commenced. A semi-truck load of hay, for instance, comes at a not inconsiderable $5,700 cost.
Volunteer signup and donations may be made through the Parks & Wildlife website, http://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Pages/GunnWinter2017, which is regularly updated.
Additional volunteer opportunities are available by contacting the agency’s southwest volunteer coordinator, Catherine Brons at 970-375-6709 or firstname.lastname@example.org