Excess snow takes toll on area’s elk and deer

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RBC I As a flip on the last three years, when there was good snow, good forage and great calf and fawn survival, an abundance of snow this winter has done some harm to the elk and deer herds found in and around Rio Blanco County, according to the local area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

Bill deVergie, the CPW area wildlife manager out of Meeker, said Saturday that the early heavy snows caused some loss of young elk and deer as the snow fell hard, high and fast in the late fall that the forage in many cases was completely covered, the elk and deer herds to disperse from their normal wintering areas.
“Most of the elk did pretty good considering the more severe winter,” deVergie said. “The adults did really well.
“The snow was much heavier and it was colder, so the elk moved west to more central areas such as Piceance Basin and Crooked Wash, both of which are out of their normal wintering areas,” deVergie said. Crooked Wash, he said, is located north of Highway 64 and about half way between Meeker and Rangely.
“We also had some move up to around Maybell,” he said, “But that is a group that usually summers around Hamilton.”
deVergie pointed out that there are three main herds in the area, and those are the White River herd, which is centered in the Piceance Basin area, a group south of Craig, which often hangs around Maybell and those northwest of Craig, which tend to be toward Brown’s Park.
“The bad news is we may have a calf survival rate that is down 25 percent this year over the previous couple of years,” deVergie said. “The good news is that the numbers of births were up, so we can absorb some of that. Pretty generally, the herds are in good shape.”
“Deer numbers have been up at a fairly good rate over the past three years, so the bad news that the herds were hit harder this year does not spell disaster,” deVergie said.
“Our deer mortality rate was up about 50 percent this winter, so it definitely doesn’t help,” deVergie said. “Where we usually have about 60 percent survival rate, it was down to about 30 percent this winter just because we had too much snow early and the fawns couldn’t get to the food because the ground was covered and covered fairly deeply.
“The good news is that we still seem to have a high buck to doe ratio, and that is important for good number because the sportsmen are looking for good hunting,” he said. “We have a minimal increase in licenses this year, and there are still plenty of deer to justify those increases.”
deVergie said there will be an increase of roughly 400 licenses in an area that holds more than 40,000 deer.
“So while there is an increase, it isn’t a big percentage of increase, and we are following a couple years where we had good increases in the number of deer,” he said. “This was a rougher-than-usual winter, but after the past three years when fawn numbers were good, this just evens out the numbers.”
As far as bears are concerned, “They are out of their dens and we are getting reports of bears being spotted,” deVergie said. “We haven’t had any complaints yet because the bears are just now coming out of their hibernations and their stomachs are still a little sensitive, meaning they are just eating berries and grasses.
“They have to get used to harder food before they would go after wildlife or stock, so we haven’t had any reports as of yet of any problems.”
deVergie said there was a good bear harvest in the fall but that it was better in the two previous years.
“I don’t know why; maybe the numbers are finally coming down a bit,” he said, adding that the CPW has put a lot of emphasis in the past three years for hunters to get a license and take a bear while out hunting other game.
Regarding antelope, deVergie said the herd east of Meeker is continuing to grow each year in the Little Beaver Estates area as well as in the Crooked Wash area, which is north of Highway 64 and north of Rio Blanco Lake.
“We had reports of a large herd just a hundred yards north of Highway 64 right opposite Rio Blanco Lake, and my guess is that while there is a nice sized herd in that area north of the highway by several miles, the heavier-than-normal snow may have driven them farther south than we usually see,” deVergie said. “It seems they have done very well over the winter, but antelope tend to move around and avoid the worst, and they survive better than deer and elk.
Moose are doing really well also, deVergie said, pointing out that they are tough animals and haven’t shown much mortality this winter.
“They stayed high and are moving around,” he said. “I believe we will see an increase in mortality with the moose.
“We had lots of calves last year and with the calves being born the last week of May and early June this year, I am guessing that we will have another good number of calves from the moose as well as the elk, which also usually give birth in late May to mid June,” deVergie said, adding that in this area deer usually give birth in late June.
It is also too early to tell about the bighorn sheep in the area, deVergie said.
“They are so remote and there is so much snow that we haven’t been able to tell about the sheep yet this year,” he said, adding that it is looking good for most of the big game animals this summer.
“With all this precipitation this winter, I anticipate great forage this summer,” deVergie said. “We have a tremendous amount of water out there now, and if these rains continue to come every day or every other day, I expect the forage will explode—at all elevations.
“Utah has had good precipitation, the Flat Irons have had good precipitation and both are continuing to get rain every other day or so,” he said. “This could be a phenomenal summer depending on how long the rains keep coming, but I certainly look for all big game species in the area to have few problems and to continue to show improvements.”