By Dave Buchanan
Country singer Kenny Rogers once cautioned us that a wise gambler “knows when to hold ’em” and “knows when to fold ’em.”
Far be it from me to suggest big-game wildlife biologists are gamblers, but there must be time they feel the deck has been stacked against them.
The winter of 2016-2017 is a case in point.
The season began with a fairly mild entry in November and December, certainly not as bad as have other early months in terms of cold and snow.
Deer and elk use the body fat reserves stored up during the warmer months to make it through the winter, and the longer the cold and snow hesitate, the longer animals can put off drawing on those reserves and the more that will be available when it’s really needed come late winter.
Sometimes, as in the winter of 2007-2008, winter arrives and stays long while spring comes late and the deep snows linger, and those fat reserves are gone long before the green-up provides relief.
This past year, the weather conditions worsened in late December, said Andy Holland, state big-game manager with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
By mid-January, it had gone from mild to wild, with many of the state’s ski resorts rejoicing in near-record snow levels.
Meanwhile, wildlife managers were thinking about and weighing the pros and cons of feeding and baiting operations aimed at protecting deer and elk.
One such baiting program was begun where big game gather along a 50-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 50 either side of Gunnison.
But as Gunnison Area Wildife Manager J Wenum said in an earlier interview, “At what point do you make the decision that this is the start to a normal winter, or is this the start to a severe or extraordinary winter?”
Also, managers are leery of feeding deer and elk, partly because it causes the animals to concentrate and could exacerbate disease problems with other wildlife as well as domestic livestock.
Snows piled high through January and February and some areas in north Colorado received freezing rain, which formed ice crusts in the snow.
Curiously, though, in much of the state the winter seemed to leave as quickly as it came. Parts of the Western Slope saw one of the mildest Marches in memory.
But those subtle days of March came too late for deer in the Gunnison Basin and parts of northwest Colorado.
“The two places where we had really bad winters were Gunnison and Craig,” Holland said. The area north of Craig received the brunt of a trough of heavy moisture that also affected northern Utah and Wyoming.
“That area got it pretty rough,” Holland said. “The area north of Craig and Steamboat definitely had a more-severe that average winter.”
In Gunnison, Wenum said the snowpack reached 20-25 inches and became so hard, the animals could not dig through it to reach forage.
“The snow set-up so hard we had animals, both wildlife and domestic, walking on top of the snow without leaving a dent in it,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. They had mobility, they could get around, they just couldn’t get through the snow to get to the forage.”
A report Holland presented in March to the Colorado Wildlife Commission warned of extensive fawn die-offs around Gunnison and Craig “and it didn’t change much after that,” he said.
“Conditions were much worse east of Gunnison than west,” Holland said. “We’re hoping that next year this year’s reduction (in licenses) will allow us to be at or above (population) objectives.”
Fawns were hit especially hard in the Gunnison Basin, Wenum said.
“The figures from (mid-June) showed a 16 percent survival rate in mule deer fawns,” he said. “That’s truly unfortunate but it’s almost to be expected in be expected in that fawns spend the vast of majority of their first year of resources and energy simply trying to grow.
“They go into winter without a lot of body fat and a lack of experience with winter and especially a severe winter.”
On the brighter side, he said the doe survival was “a little below normal but not excessive.”
“I think we had an 86 percent survival rate on does,” Wenum said.
Biologists have to scramble in late winter to gather herd information and set big-game license allocation numbers in time for the spring limited-license draws.
As expected, most hunters seeking a doe license this fall will be disappointed as license numbers were cut from last year’s levels due to the rigors of the 2016/2017 winter.
One deer management area north of Craig and Steamboat saw an 80 percent reduction in license numbers and similar cuts were reported for Gunnison Basin, Holland said.
He explained that regulations require a minimum of 10 doe licenses per hunt code “and that’s what we dropped to,” he said. “We went from 415 doe licenses in the basin to 80.”
Buck licenses in the area were cut by 60 percent, from 1,600 to 645.
Still, bucks in general statewide are doing well, with a statewide average buck/doe ratio of 35/100. And while does were reduced drastically in many places, in most places (Gunnison excepted) buck licenses were increased.
“We went up on the buck licenses, from 2,800 to 3,000 (statewide) because of really higher buck ratios on a three-year average,” Holland explained. “And as long as we have those bucks, we want to give hunters the opportunity to harvest them.”
But the good times won’t last, since biologist expect to see an age gap in two or three years due to this year’s extensive fawn mortality.
“We fully expect in two to three years we will be reducing buck licenses,” Holland cautioned.
Elk, which survive harsh winters much better than deer, came out of the winter generally in good shape, Holland said,
with the exception being the puzzling fall-off in calf survival in the southern part of the state.
A new research project involving tracking radio-collared elk on the Uncompahgre Plateau and near Trinidad is expected to offer some answers as to what happens to calves between spring calving and the December population counts.
The statewide post-hunt deer population was 419,000, down from the 436,000 in 2015 and far from the desired level of 501,000-557,00 state wide.