deer

Mule deer move down out of the high country in a storm. (Photo by Tony Gurzick/Courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife)

Dead elk lying along Route 550 just outside Ridgway — and as many as 100 of them congregating in fields outside Montrose.

Mule deer wandering dazed through local neighborhoods in the middle of the day and lazing in backyards.

It has been an epic season for snowfall. But instead of causing local wildlife to disappear and take shelter, the winter seems to have exposed them. Big game is everywhere you look these days. Last Friday afternoon, just a few miles apart from one another, an elk was killed by a driver on Highway 145 between Telluride and Placerville, while a little farther down the same stretch of road, bighorn sheep grazed. The San Juans are not the only place where wildlife is lingering by roadsides with dangerous consequences — especially recently.  

“A few weeks ago, animals around here had been surviving pretty well,” said Western Colorado University biology professor Kevin Alexander, who lives in Gunnison. Lately, he said, that seems to have changed. “I haven’t seen the data,” he emphasized, but there seems to be “a lot of mortality from animal-vehicle collisions. … It’s pretty gruesome on the highways right now.”

Mark Lawler, a biologist for CDOT, also doesn’t have statistics to describe what seems to be happening. “I get our maintenance data quarterly” from CDOT road operators, whose job it is to tally and collect carcasses along roadsides, Lawler said. And numbers from law-enforcement regarding how many accidents between vehicles and wildlife took place this winter are even slower in coming. “Those won’t be available for about a year. Meanwhile, we all see what you see,” Lawler said. Meaning: Collisions between local animals and vehicles appear to be on the rise.

The reason is the season. Yes, the winter has helped: Welcome moisture will rejuvenate the plants and grasses that provide nourishment for local animals. But that won’t happen until later this spring and summer — and it could be even longer. William Bowman, an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at the University of Colorado who directs the university’s Mountain Research Station, said it can take more than just one season for forage to regrow. “If native grasses have been grazed to the point where they’ve died in spots, they’ll take a couple of years to respond” following a drought, Bowman said. “However, if the grasses haven’t been hit too hard by grazing in the past, they’ll respond well this year, and probably better next year, once they replace their reserves of stored nutrients and energy.”

But that is all in the future. Right now, animals are coming off a summer of depleted food sources — because of the drought — and a big winter, and more snow is predicted for the next few days in the high country. Big snows force animals to dig around, expending precious energy to uncover what little is left to eat.

The forage might deteriorate even further before it springs back, Colorado Parks and Wildlife district manager Mark Caddy said.

“The feed deer and elk got even a month ago, when they were finding it … there’s just not enough calories in it to help them out that much right now. This is just a hunch on my part, but we probably lost the elder-age segment of our elk herd this year,” he added. “I’ve had to put down at least three old (elk) cows” this winter.

Looking forward, “There’s very much a chance” that deer and elk “will show up on your local lawn” soon, Caddy added. “Houses reflect heat, and lawns start greening up first. Young shoots of grass have a lot of the sugars and proteins” that animals need. And if several animals are in or around your yard, there’s a chance that they could draw in mountain lions. “If you have a lot of deer” — meaning, as few as four or five — “you’re going to have cats,” Mark Lawler said. “They don’t like moving through snow, and there’s no food for them in it.” So more or less, “They move with the herds.”

THOSE WHO’VE THRIVED

Not all of the local wildlife has had a terrible winter. Indeed, another type of cat — the lynx, which has been reintroduced to Colorado (including in the San Juans) — is built for winter, with huge front feet “that allow them to chase down rabbits,” CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski explained. “We do surveys, and we’ve seen that the snowshoe hare population,” the lynx’ chief food source, “is doing very well.” For that matter, a smaller native wildcat, the bobcat, “is abundant in Colorado” and except for an ailing specimen recently spotted in Rico, “they’re more prone to hang out in canyon country, closer to Placerville,” where snow melts quickly on sandstone and food tends to be easier to catch. “It would be surprising to see a bobcat in the Town of Telluride around winter,” Lewandowski said. “They’ll move” when the weather changes. “In four to five days, they can be in Placerville or Miramonte, away from the snow.”

“A lot of snow is good for many small mammals,” said John Dembowski, curator of mammals at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. “It’s particularly good for those who don’t hibernate, like voles and shrews. The snow provides a level of insulation for them.” A lot of animals “are actually living underneath” the boundary between the ground and a layer of snow known as the subnivean layer, Dembowski explained. The space provides not only shelter and warmth but “allows them to find food — they have access to vegetation that was there before the snow fell.”

 One animal that can get stressed by a big winter is the marmot, which does hibernate. “Deep snows can impact them,” Dembowski said. “There’ve been studies in Gothic at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory that have found in heavy wet snow years, the snow layer is so deep” that marmots may emerge from their burrows “with no access to vegetation.”

And while snowshoe hares and lynxes may thrive in deep snows, if it gets too deep, “some of the smaller branches that the hares eat might be covered by snow.” The question is what effect that has on hare populations, and on the creatures that prey on them. Studies outside Gothic “have found marmots popping out of their burrows about 38 days earlier than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” Dembowski added, presumably because the world is warming.

If marmots emerge early — apparently the new normal — from their burrows and are greeted by big snows, what will that mean for their numbers?

“These heavy snowpacks also impact migratory birds,” Dembowski added, “which are returning to Colorado from the south. They show up, and they don’t have access to forage. What happens to them? A lot of this, unfortunately, we are just starting to notice — birds showing up early, marmots emerging from burrows sooner — and baseline studies haven’t been done on the effects of deep snows” in a warming world. “Some of these long-term patterns are probably related to climate change,” Dembowski said. “We’re just  starting to see these patterns, and we’re trying to figure out what they mean.”

WHAT IS CERTAIN

Biologists do understand some things about animals’ movements. Indeed, “two things are happening,” as CDOT biologist Mark Lawler explained. “The grasses are starting to grow, and all large game practice a phenomena called ‘chasing the green wave.’” Right now, animals are heading toward the roads because “unfortunately, some of the first green is along the roadways, where the snow has melted out.”

But in a larger sense, big game has been “chasing the green” all winter, retreating every time their food gets covered by snow to someplace lower. “The big elk herds that you see outside Montrose have migrated down from the Cimarron Range,” Mark Caddy explained. “They get pushed down to the river valley bottoms,” Lawler added. “That’s why you see them outside Ridgway, where they think the first grass will come up. When there’s a big snowpack, they’ll avoid the snow. Their mobility is restricted” — which can be highly dangerous, given that an unugulates’ best defense is not to fight, but to flee — “and there’s no food for them.”

The big game is obeying an ancient imperative which does not take into consideration the number of cars on the road, or for that matter, the fact that there are even roads at all. (As a CDOT biologist once pointed out to this reporter, deer and elk have lived in this region for millions of years; cars have been around for about a century. The animals “haven’t evolved to the point where they understand, ‘These can hurt me.’”) Wild game is “burning the candle at both ends right now,” at the end of a hard winter, carrying even less body weight than they might have had, Lawler said. CDOT will soon post signs warning drivers to watch both sides of the road, as snows melt, and animals begin to migrate back to the high country. But in truth, as last Friday on Highway 145 proved, creatures are out in force already and deserve your attention.

“If you hit one, it will be when you least expect it,” San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said. “Last year, one of our deputies driving up Highway 62 hit a moose.” What were the odds? “I think it was one of the only bull moose we have around. Soon, bears will be out of hibernation. People hit them, too.”

In addition to watching the roads closely while you’re driving, wildlife officials have a couple of other suggestions for when you’re out of your car. For starters, observe the new “shed-hunting” regulations put in place last year, and don’t try to collect antlers or horns on public land before May 1. “The rules are designed to keep wildlife safe so animals can give birth and not be stressed,” said CPW wildlife officer Kelly Crane of Ridgway. Wildlife officials’ other suggestion? Keep your pet close. That’s especially important right how.  

“Deer and elk can lose 20-30 percent of their body weight in a normal winter. They’re very hardy. Imagine what that would do to you if you were a human,” Lewandowski said. “Right now they don’t have a lot of fat, and whatever calories they burn is likely to come from disturbances by humans.”

“Calorically, it’s a terrible situation for these animals, which are usually towing a pretty thin line anyhow” this time of year, Lawler added. The abundance of creatures near roads, and in proximity to people’s homes, “it’s all amplified this year, because animals are present on valley floors.”

“Dogs are a problem, because they have a natural instinct to chase — I don’t care how well trained yours is — and the snow is crusty,” Lewandowski added. “A dog can run on top of the snow, but a deer is probably going to break through it” and expend energy it can’t spare. “Keep your dog on a leash.”