Harsh winter conditions can take a toll on wildlife in Routt County, Colorado

A moose stands in the middle of U.S. Highway 40 near the base of Rabbit Ears Pass on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Wildlife encounters like this one can be more frequent in the winter months, as the animals often use plowed roads to move from one area to another.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Big game wildlife in Northwest Colorado are condensing in the last sections of winter range refuge, trying to find any vegetation and grazing areas not buried in snow.

Wildlife typically move from higher to lower elevations when the weather turns colder, going from the mountains to the valleys, and from Routt County west toward Moffat County, said Kyle Bond, Colorado Parks and Wildlife district wildlife manager in the Steamboat Springs area.

This year’s heavy snowfall, prolonged snow on the ground and continued cold temperatures are stressing wildlife. Deeper snow in more traditional winter range areas is making it difficult for wildlife to move from one area to another in search of food, with the worst threat to fawns. More wildlife have been seen and hit on roads as the animals look for easier pathways, according to CPW.

“Big game animals are using roadways for travel to and from feeding grounds, which is leading to an increase in collisions on both country roads and highways,” said Rachael Gonzales, CPW public information officer.

In two separate accidents in mid-January, 35 pronghorns on U.S. Highway 40 near Dinosaur were hit by a semi-truck, and 18 pronghorns were hit by a pickup on a county road near Craig. Officials urge motorists not to drive distracted, slow down and pay close attention to the surroundings, especially during dawn and dusk.

In an attempt to reduce public safety hazards, CPW is conducting limited, small-scale big game baiting to lure animals away from roads, highways and human conflicts. Gonzales stressed that the temporary baiting in Moffat County is not a sustained feeding program and citizens should not set out feed.

CPW officials say nature is taking its normal course on the wildlife population this winter.

A cow elk walks on the roadway just outside of Steamboat Springs. Elk are one of many large game animals looking for an easier path this deep snow winter. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials urge drivers to slow down and use extra caution especially at dusk and dawn.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

“Deep snow has made it difficult for wildlife to access vegetation, leading to starvation and in some cases death,” according to CPW.

The shorter an animal’s legs are, the harder that animal must work to survive harsher winters.

“Pronghorn fawns are typically the first to die, then deer fawns followed by elk calves and finally adults,” Gonzales explained.

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CPW officials say the 2007-08 winter was the toughest for wildlife during the past 20 years, followed by the winters of 2010-11 and 2016-17. Consequences to big game from this winter will not be known until April or May, but scavenger animals such as eagles and fox may be benefitting.

CPW officials also want to remind residents that feeding wildlife is illegal and can do more harm than good.

“Seeing animals in poor body condition or starving is hard,” Bond said. “We know people mean well when they try to help. Unfortunately, that desire to help can be more harmful. It is hard to sit back and watch, but the reality is this is nature.”

With laid back ears and the hair along its back standing up, a moose shows signs of being agitated on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, as it takes advantage of a plowed U.S. Highway 40 to move from one area to another.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Wildlife such as deer and elk have complex digestive systems that are not adapted to handle human food, hay, alfalfa or straw. Feeding wildlife also can attract predators and increase the spread of wildlife diseases, according to CPW.

As winter worsened in December and January, CPW officers observed big game animals concentrated together in river bottom areas and near roadways as well as increasing conflicts such as elk getting into livestock feed on private lands, said Mike Swaro, CPW assistant area wildlife manager in the Moffat County area.

CPW officials request that citizens do their part to help wildlife survive. When humans or dogs encounter wildlife, the animals feel threatened and often run to escape perceived danger and burn calories needed to survive. People recreating should find less busy trails, give wildlife plenty of space, always honor trail closures and keep dogs on a leash and under control.

Steamboat Springs CPW officials report an uptick in sightings of wildlife in residential areas and around town this winter.

“We’ve seen an increase in calls reporting wildlife in neighborhoods asking what they can do to keep them from eating their ornamental trees and shrubbery,” said Christy Bubenheim, CPW administrative assistant. “We’re encouraging people to embrace the opportunity to see wildlife, being sure to give them space.”

Bubenheim said additional fencing or wildlife repellent products such as Plantskydd may be an option to dissuade wildlife if necessary.

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