Winter weather causes Colorado wildlife to struggle

Photo Credit: Colorado Parks & Wildlife

This winter has been a hard one for western wildlife. In Colorado, animals have had to navigate over 80” of snowfall, strong and gusty winds and little forage. They’ve dealt with increased run-ins with busy highways as they drop to lower elevations, migrating in search of food, using up dwindling fat and calories preserves “they likely won’t replenish,” reports Colorado Outdoors

“It’s tough,” said Mike Swaro, an assistant area wildlife manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “There’s no other way to describe it. We typically see some mortality from starvation every winter. That’s just nature, not every animal survives. This year it feels like all we’re seeing is starving or dying animals.”

As a result, CPW has established different feeding areas to keep struggling elk out of livestock areas in an effort to reduce conflict and have had to make the difficult decisions to euthanize animals when necessary. For example, after back-to-back blizzards, Northwest Region Public Information Officer Rachael Gonzales and District Wildlife Manager Jeffrey Goncalves had to euthanize a mature bull elk suffering from extreme starvation.

“It’s tough to see any animal suffer,” said Goncalves. “I care for Colorado’s wildlife, it’s why I entered the wildlife conservation field. My worst days are the days when I have to make the decision to end an animal’s life just to end its suffering. It gets to you, too. The constant calls for sick animals who can’t get up along the roadways or in yards. Knowing when you arrive that the likelihood of you having to euthanize the animal to end its suffering is high.”

While the calendar has announced spring is here, in Colorado, winter conditions are still lingering across much of the state, leaving biologists waiting for snowmelt and green-up to determine how dire the situation really is. The hope is that “large numbers of elk and deer migrate back to their summer range” like prior years, but for now, they are not sure how many survived this harsh winter, according to Colorado Outdoors. They are seeing an increase in elk calf mortality and, for deer, the combination of chronic wasting disease and severe winter conditions “has affected the resiliency of this population.” Antelope have migrated out of the Great Divide Data Analysis Area and into the Sandwash Basin; however, observation has discovered “significant mortality.”

Graphic showing where the reductinon of tags could occur. Photo credit: Colorado Outdoors

CPW is also recommending significant license reductions (more than 40% in some areas) for elk and deer in the Bears Ears and White River DAUs, and antelope in the Great Divide DAU for the 2023 big game hunting season. “This has been a tough year for licenses setting in the Craig area,” said Area Wildlife Manager Bill de Vergie. “We know this impacts more than just CPW. These decisions also have impacts on hunters and the local economy, that’s what makes these decisions the hardest. My hope is they understand this isn’t something we wanted to do, it’s something we had to do.”  

“I wish we could see into the future,” said Darby Finley, an area terrestrial biologist. “Unfortunately, we don’t know what Mother Nature has in store for the next couple months. However, we are fortunate to have radio collars out on deer in the White River herd and elk in the Bear’s Ears herd and will be able to quantify survival in these herds. [Antelope] herds will be more difficult to assess until the snow melts.”


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