January 23, 2024
Winter is a tough season for wildlife, especially ungulates (hoofed mammals like deer, elk, and moose) but you can help make things a bit easier for them by keeping 5 simple points in mind throughout the season:
- Winter is hard on wildlife.
- Know before you go.
- Do not disturb.
- When to switch to Plan B.
- ‘Green-up’ doesn’t mean green light.
Here’s why. Research shows that when ungulates are disturbed and stressed during the winter months their physical condition declines, as does their chances of successfully raising offspring, leading to significant herd and population declines. Meanwhile, new technologies have made both motorized and non-motorized winter backcountry recreation more popular, contributing to a sharp increase in user numbers in recent years. People are also venturing further into the backcountry and into sub-optimal winter recreation areas (such as ungulate winter ranges) in search of solitude and untracked snow. This leads to more encounters between winter recreationists and wildlife and thus more stress for wildlife. Of course, most people don’t want to disturb wildlife, nor do they want to be responsible (even partially) for herd declines and animal deaths. However, lots of people also don’t understand how their activities can impact wildlife, or how to avoid or reduce their impacts.
In response to this growing conservation challenge, Winter Wildlands Alliance worked with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, and Colorado Mountain Club to develop a new campaign – the Wintering Wildlife Conservation Initiative (WWCI) – to educate winter recreationists about how to avoid, or minimize impacts to wildlife during sensitive winter months and provide tools to help guide decision-making. Much as we plan our ski days and make in-the-moment decisions based on an understanding of avalanche hazard, we can, and should, also incorporate information to reduce our impacts on wildlife into trip-planning and decision-making.
So, going back to those 5 points – what’s the story with each of them?
Winter is hard on wildlife: Ungulates do not hibernate. Instead, they survive off of the fat reserves they build through the summer and fall. Any excess movement or stress burns extra calories, depleting these reserves more quickly. If their reserves run out, their chances of survival are low. For females, even if they survive, their offspring for that year probably will not.
Know before you go: When you’re planning your winter adventures, think about wildlife and how current conditions may be affecting them. Consider how you might alter your plans if you do encounter wildlife (and learn to recognize fresh wildlife sign). Google your state’s wildlife management agency to learn where winter ranges are located and plan to avoid these areas. Be aware of and respect habitat closures. If you’re unsure, stick to designated roads and trails for winter travel. Many were located and designed with wintering wildlife in mind.
Do not disturb: Avoid disturbing and stressing wildlife in the winter and always keep your dog under control (and leashed, if wildlife may be near). If you do encounter wildlife, give them plenty of space and time. Quietly go around them (detouring uphill, if possible), or turn around and opt for your Plan B if you can’t avoid disturbing wildlife on your original route or objective that day. Keep in mind that disturbance doesn’t always equate to movement- even if an animal does not flee from you they are likely stressed by the encounter.
When to switch to Plan B: If you encounter wildlife or see fresh tracks, turn back or take another route. If you keep touring notes, make note of where you encounter wildlife in order to inform future decision-making.
‘Green-up’ doesn’t mean green light: “Green up” is when, after a long winter, there is finally green vegetation on the landscape again. This means more (and higher quality) food for wildlife. However, winter stress and disturbance have a cumulative impact and most winter ungulate mortality actually happens in the spring. Animals are at the very end of their energy reserves in spring, so even if it looks like they are “out of the woods” with green vegetation sprouting, they’re still trying to bulk up and recover. Continue to give them space!
Remember, impacts and stress to wildlife are cumulative, and they have a long, hard winter to endure no matter how dry or mild it may seem to you. Give wildlife space, plan ahead and prepare to minimize your impacts, and be flexible in your plans. Together, we can help protect wintering wildlife!