After deaths, public urged not to feed deer, elk

When a well-intentioned person in the Copper Ridge neighborhood recently put out bales of grass hay to sustain snowed-in mule deer, the fate of the animals was sealed.

"Some kind-hearted soul put out grass hay, and three of them died with full stomachs," Susan Werner said. She is the area wildlife manager with the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The incident underscores pleas from division personnel that despite the harsh winter, residents abide by regulations, which prohibit feeding wildlife.

The harsh start to this winter potentially threatens the health of deer later in the season, and there are some deer and elk attempting to spend the winter within the snowy limits of Steamboat Springs.

"We do have some situations with both deer and elk in the city limits," Werner said. There are very few deer in the Steamboat Springs area this winter, and that's the way it should be.

Mule deer in the Rocky Mountains can browse on more than 200 species of plants, but the meadow hay that is most common in Routt County is not one of them. They cannot efficiently digest the hay. Werner said the deer did not appear to have died of starvation -- but their stomachs were simply impacted by the hay.

An important reason to avoid feeding deer and elk is that the practice tends to concentrate them in larger numbers, facilitating the spread of infectious disease such as chronic wasting disease.

"We have real low prevalence (of CWD), and we want to keep it that way," Werner said.

The wildlife division will keep an open mind to feeding animals this winter, Werner said, but there's a delicate balance to preserve. If it's necessary to feed the animals, wildlife managers don't want to feed to the extent that they attract more animals off natural winter range.

Elk are hardier than deer and rarely are threatened by weather, but wildlife managers in the area are watching some herds closely, and even allowing hunters to cull a few animals.

"We have a couple of elk herds we're keeping a close eye on," Werner said. "We know they're not getting enough to eat."

Werner said two herds in question are bunched up with cattle and horses on ranches in the Elk and Yampa valleys. In an effort to disperse the elk, the division is sometimes allowing a single hunter a day to harvest an animal at the time the ranchers are making their feed rounds. The goal is to encourage the group to move back onto the south facing ridges that are their natural wintering ground. The limited elk harvest also has permitted biologists to assess the condition of the animals. The cow elk in the area still have a half-inch of fat on their carcasses, which they can rely on for energy through the rest of the winter, Werner noted.

Historically, deer and elk have migrated away from the Steamboat area to lower elevations with milder microclimates and less snow. The only critical winter range in Routt County is west of Hayden, Werner said. Ironically, there's very little snow there. Traditional migration patterns have been interrupted, however, by highways, subdivisions and human recreation. And for a few deer stuck in snow country, it promises to be a long winter.

Wildlife managers ask the public not to feed the animals and to keep dogs on leashes to avoid stressing the animals further.

-- To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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