Deer fortunes

In late June, the long-staying snowpack in the Upper Gunnison Basin was measured at 109 percent of long-term average. In most years, that would bode ill for the region’s mule deer, which are susceptible to cold and deep snow.

But while herds across the state still are trying to rebound from the horrific winter of 2007/08, when Colorado Parks and Wildlife mounted a wide-scale emergency winter feeding program, last year was relatively snow-free until late. Mule deer can survive bitter cold if they have access to food.

“Last winter in the Gunnison Basin was above average in terms of snowfall,” says Brandon Diamond, area wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “Deer and elk were concentrated on lower winter ranges and along U.S. Highway 50.”

But because the snow arrived later, wildlife was able to save calories and conserve their energy during the first part of winter. Additionally, the entire Gunnison Basin “had a relatively wet summer and fall, so big game went into winter in very good body condition,” Diamond says.

Late-arriving snows also enable wildlife to stay spread out and not concentrate in certain feeding areas, preventing the over-browsing that occurs in deep-snow winters.

In the high country around Aspen, wildlife biologists similarly reported seeing deer on south-facing slopes as high as 10,400 feet in early January, surprisingly high and indicative of the general shortage of snow.

According to Perry Will, CPW’s Glenwood Springs area wildlife manager, the lack of snow enables elk and deer to save energy, an important factor when pregnant females are carrying.

“These open winters are good for elk and deer,” Will says. “It’s like a godsend.”

What this means for this fall, says Diamond, is that although survival rates this winter were down from the two previous mild winters, they still are high enough to keep building herds.

“It was enough to keep us on an increasing trajectory,” he says. “Our summer ranges look fantastic at this point so animals (this fall) should be doing quite well.”