Drought’s affect on young
On the bright side, this season’s lack of snow offered a respite for elk and deer herds, which had near-ideal conditions for calf and fawn survival.
“The mild winter definitely helped with over-winter deer, elk and pronghorn survival, in particular for juveniles going into the winter,” said Brad Banulis, Montrose area terrestrial biologist for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. “The mild winter should have translated into good fawn and calf crops, as well, since the does were in good condition.”
However, should the dry conditions continue, it may affect where hunters find their favorite game. Among the concerns of wildlife managers is how well the herds of deer, elk and pronghorn survive when forage is in short supply at a particularly critical time of development for young animals.
“My concern is for forage abundance and quality for lactating does and cows this summer,” Banulis said. “If we stay dry, we might lose fawns and calves due to poor nutrients.”
The impact of the dry weather includes halting the regenerative growth of forage plants, which may fade when nourishing rains fail to arrive. And once the animals beat down the initial growth, there might not be more to replace it.
Elk calves and deer fawns can’t compete against adult animals for forage and will find themselves pushed aside if it comes to a food shortage. Key winter ranges and transition zones, which offer refuge and nourishment during spring and fall migrations, are equally at risk.
“We have concerns over how dry conditions will affect forage plants and therefore big-game body condition, survival of young and distribution,” said Andy Holland, state big-game biologist for the Division of Parks and Wildlife. “Not only do big-game herds have lower quality forage available right now, but winter and transition range conditions will be below average when animals need them next winter.”
All this might change should the summer monsoons arrive to recharge life systems. But the jury is still out. “Depending on if, when and where summer monsoons show up, things could be OK,” said Stephanie Duckett, Grand Junction area terrestrial biologist for the Division of Parks and Wildlife. “But if the lack of rain continues, there will be very little forage.”
— Dave Buchanan
After record snowpack and moisture in parts of western Colorado last year, this year has seen a 180-degree change to one of the driest years on record.
In addition to low flows in area rivers, which impacts fishing, the drought also might spell a different camping experience. (Check with local officials regarding fire restrictions; you might not be able to tell your hunting tales over a fire this season.) But of most importance to hunters is what the dry conditions mean for the hunt and how they affect animal movement and behavior.
“Elk and deer will definitely want to get to water more this summer, especially during bow season,” said Dave Keller, a guide for Silver Creek Outfitters out of Steamboat Springs. “If it stays hot and dry, they’ll hold up longer in the shade and not want to come out until it cools off. They might not be moving much during the day.”
While the feed still seems to be growing well at higher elevations, he said, herds down lower might move more than usual as they look for food. “But there should still be good shade around, so the grass should be fine,” he added.
The main thing to be aware of this year, he added, is making noise when tracking. “It will definitely be noisier this year with dry growth underfoot,” he said. “Hunters will have to take that into consideration.” Scent control also will be important, he said. If it’s hotter, hunters will sweat more, making their scent harder to hide.
From an animal-control perspective, officials aren’t overly worried. “We’re concerned about the lack of moisture, but monsoonal rains could still reduce impacts to big game,” said Mike Porras, public information officer for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife’s Northwest Region.
But foraging patterns could be affected, he added. “If this dry period continues, we could see some negative impacts to forage,” he said. “And if it continues into fall, it may present challenges to hunters regarding the distribution of elk.”
He also added that possible fall fires might cause some units to be closed, as occurred in 2002 when the early-season deer hunt and archery season in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area were closed. “But that type of circumstance is extremely rare,” he said. “We’re still expecting a successful hunting season.”