When Ron Velarde stood before the Parks and Wildlife Commission at its recent meeting in Denver, he made it clear February was a lifesaver for big game in parts of northwest Colorado.
“February probably saved us (and) the deer and elk situation in the Northwest Region,” said Velarde, Northwest Region manager for Parks and Wildlife. “It’s interesting. You hear people say, “Did you even have a winter?” and yes, we had a winter.”
In what has proven to be an exception to winter conditions seen elsewhere across the state, Velarde and the Northwest Region field staff earlier this year reported seeing deer, elk and pronghorn trapped by deep snow.
“When I did some tours up there with my staff, there was four feet of snow,” he said. “That’s on the average.”
He listed Craig and Meeker specifically, with higher amounts, “probably five to seven feet,” at higher elevations.
“It was not very good,” Velarde said. “The elk were having a rough time moving, the deer weren’t moving, and the antelope were bunched up.”
Northwest Region assistant manager Dean Riggs later explained the swath of heavy snow was limited to either side of a line stretching from around Maybell in the northwest corner to about Steamboat Springs and the Bears Ears region.
Steamboat Ski Resort has reported receiving nearly 30 feet of snow this winter.
A series of storms in December left substantial snow and later a sun-crust formed on the snow, increasing the difficulty for animals to move and find forage.
“It got worse in January,” Riggs said. “We had a reprieve in February but by that time the animals don’t have much time to recover, even if conditions lighten up.
“We’re always worried about the deer and pronghorn aspect, and we still are going to see some mortality in some older does as well as some fawns and calves.”
Velarde told the commission this winter, despite its ominous start, won’t be remembered as difficult as the memorable winters of 1983-83 or 2007-2008.
“From our perspective, thanks to a lot of things, we are ending up in better shape than we earlier thought,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, but overall it could have been a lot worse.”
Winter mortality is a given in wildlife management.
Each year, wildlife managers know that some animals, particularly the very young and the old, won’t make it to see the spring.
Winter is a time of slow starvation for big game, who gain little from winter forage and must rely on their stored fat reserves from summer to survive until the spring “greenup” arrives.
Big-game “animals are on a starvation diet starting in December,” said Northwest Region assistant manager Dean Riggs. “There is no comparison or substitute for summer forage.”
Darby Finley, Parks and Wildlife terrestrial biologist in Meeker, said in an earlier interview the normal cycle sees “late February and March bring sunlight and temperatures warm enough to melt off south-facing slopes, providing game with food and the opportunity to move with less effort.”
In some cases, such as the winter of 2010-2011 when record snows blanketed much of Colorado and then in 2011-2012 when continued drought may it difficult to find enough forage, wildlife may survive the brunt of cold and snow but then run out of resources and starve before the greenup appears.
Mule deer research in the Piceance Basin shows that about 35 percent of deer fawns die each winter. During hard winters such as 2007-2008, where spring came late to the Gunnison Basin after record snows, mortality can rise to more than 60 percent.