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RBC I The Colorado Division of Wildlife is mobilizing an effort to head off conflict between northwest Colorado’s elk herds and important agricultural operations as herds of elk fleeing heavy snows near livestock feeding areas in the bottomlands of the Yampa River. The Division is planning to put hay in two upland areas several miles north of the river to minimize the number of elk going onto feed lines laid out by ranchers for their cattle and sheep. DOW officials also want to keep elk from migrating into livestock pastures that may injure cattle and possibly trample calves that will start to be born in late February and into March.
“We’re concerned about the situation in the Maybell area,” said Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie of Meeker. “With more snow and more winter on the way, we’re working hard to minimize losses to the ranching community.”
The 30 inches of snow that fell in Maybell during December was almost 2.5 times the monthly average, according to the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Even heavier snows in higher elevations to the east have elk on the move and looking for food.
“We are getting close to conditions last experienced in this area in the winter of 2007-08, when ranchers experienced damage that resulted in over $125,000 in game damage claims for lost hay,” explained Tom Remington, Director of the Division of Wildlife. “That’s unacceptable to them and us, and we are going to do our best to keep the level of damage as low as possible.”
Division officials explained that the planned operation is not a “feeding” operation designed to prevent starvation of wildlife. Colorado Wildlife Commission policy prohibits such actions except during periods of extreme winter conditions when losses could exceed 30 percent of the females in a big game population. Those kinds of losses would be very rare for elk, but a major deer feeding operation occurred in the Gunnison Basin during the winter of 2007-2008.
The Maybell operation will use food as bait to lure elk away from areas with a high potential for conflict with livestock.
“This is not a feeding operation,” said Ron Velarde, regional manager for the Division of Wildlife’s Northwest Region. “That’s a last resort when large-scale starvation is likely, and we don’t anticipate it that. What we’re trying to do is bait elk away from ranches.”
Over the next several days, the Division will be transporting weed-free hay from several storage areas in western Colorado. Wildlife managers hope to have established two elk bait stations by early next week. Officials stress that their effort will not completely eliminate agricultural damage, but are designed to minimize the scale of losses to livestock operations. In addition to the baiting operation, the Division is giving ranchers game damage panels to fence elk away from vulnerable hay stack yards and pyrotechnic shotgun rounds to haze them off. Damage prevention materials are available by contacting the local Division of Wildlife office. A complete list of offices can be found at http://wildlife.state.co.us/About/OfficesAndPhone/.
“Heavy snows came to this country relatively late, and animals were in pretty good condition‚“ explained Darby Finley, terrestrial biologist for the Division in Meeker.
In most years, 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. But the reality, Finley said, is that each winter some animals won’t make it to see the spring.
Mule deer research in the Piceance Basin shows that about 35 percent of deer fawns die each winter. During hard winters like 2007-2008, mortality can rise to more than 60 percent. However, Colorado’s deer and elk populations are adapted to survive this annual test. About 78 of every 100 female mule deer survived the winter of 2007-2008, which is 8 percent less than normal.
“Nature can be harsh,” he said. “But wildlife is built to take it.”