Wildlife in the winter: Survival is an admirable feat

Snow and frost cling to the fur of elk just off U.S. Highway 40 east of Steamboat Springs in late fall of 2022. According to wildlife experts, many elk survive the winter by pawing through snow to find food, and interactions with humans can cause the animals to lose important energy reserves that are crucial for their survival.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Winter in Routt County has been fierce this year with deep snowpack and frigid temperatures. While humans stay cozy from within the warm insulation of their Gore-Tex lined winter apparel, local wildlife doesn’t have it so easy. 

The adaptability of wild animals is frequently credited to natural instincts — or thick fur coats — but what humans perceive as a preternatural relationship between life and the elements, is for many animals, a constant balancing act of competing needs.

For big game mammals such as elk and deer, conserving energy is a high priority once the temperatures drop. Food is scarce in the wintertime and far less nutritious. Even though mammals spend the fall storing as much fat as they can, they must be careful not to burn too many calories once the cold settles in.

“They are slowly starving to death throughout the winter,” said Jeff Yost, a retired wildlife biologist. “They’re losing those fat reserves and they got to make it to spring.” 

Heavy winters with late-season snowfall pose danger to big game animals. During an especially long and brutal winter from 2010-2011, Yost estimated that about a third of the bighorn sheep herd living in the Zirkel Wilderness died of starvation. He explained that the sheep struggled to find food, while the snow continued falling well into June. 

Luckily, the subsequent winters weren’t as brutal. 

“That herd is doing really well now,” Yost said. “The numbers have really bounced back.”

Deer, elk and moose have similar habitats but experience winter very differently. Of the three, deer are the least adapted to snow because they’re the smallest and have the shortest legs, so they tend to migrate to lower elevations and southern slopes earlier than the other two. Yost said that as early as September, the deer around Steamboat start to migrate toward Craig and Maybell. 

In terms of size, elk are in the middle of the other two undulates. While the two layers of fur elk possess are quite resilient to cold temperatures, elk will migrate from areas with deep snowpack to save energy, especially if the snow is crusted, hardpacked or icy. During winter, elk eat a lot of grasses that get covered in snow, so elk will seek food elsewhere if the top snow layers make it difficult for them to paw through it. 

Yost said elk can tolerate deep snow, but exceptionally hard winters are known to happen and pose dangers for the weaker elk or calves. 

“If you start getting snow that’s up to the third or fourth wire on the fences, that gets to be the point where we’re at the hard winter and you’re going to start losing elk,” Yost said. 

Yost said that before the Yampa Valley was settled, elk would move from the mountains into the valley near sources of water, but now that the area is populated by humans, the local elk population isn’t just taking weather into account, but also seeks winter ranges that keep people at a distance. 

“What they’ve done is adapted to hunting pressure and private land refuges, and even public lands, where they know they can get back in the deep, inaccessible areas and get away from people,” Yost said.

Because so many properties are in traditional winter ranges, conflicts between elk and landowners are common, and CPW’s Habitat Partnership Program provides fencing and diversionary haystacks to mitigate occurrences of elk attempting to eat people’s hay. 

“You see a big bale of hay sitting there, and you’re going to try to eat it instead of pawing through the grass and or the snow,” Yost said.

Elk brave the cold weather off of U.S. Highway 40 east of Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Moose, meanwhile, are much more lanky than deer or elk, and can move easily through several feet of snowpack, which is why these goofy animals are frequently spotted on Mount Werner year-round. Moose eat twigs, sticks and bushes during the winter, so they don’t have to dig through snow like elk do and can feed in one area all winter fairly easily. 

Yost said he was surprised by how little the local moose population moves and added that it would be inaccurate to say they migrate at all. 

“We collared a bunch of them that were on the edge of town and along the ski area,” Yost said. “I would say eight out of 10 of those moose didn’t move more than a couple of miles.”

Moose thrive in the cold, and even benefit from frigid weather because extremely low temperatures can kill the thousands of ticks that burrow into a moose’s hide, causing significant hair and blood loss. In fact, ticks can cause a moose to spend more time grooming itself than searching for food, leaving the animal malnourished. 

According to the Nature Conservancy, there is a direct correlation between mild winters and tick infestations in moose populations. 

For smaller mammals, surviving winter requires flexibility and even some unreal evolutionary traits. 

The snowshoe hare, for example, changes the color of its coat from brown to white during winter, which helps the small creatures blend in with their environment. According to The Nature Conservancy, the snowshoe hare’s change in color is caused by the sun and has nothing to do with snow — a lot of sun turns their fur brown, while a lack of sunlight turns their fur white.

Also known as short-tailed weasels, ermines, on the other hand, change the color of their fur to white during winter to better sneak up on their prey. 

Pikas, which some people might say are the cutest critters in Routt County, need deep snow to stay warm because snow layers provide cover for their dens, which are usually underneath loose rocks, such as the talus field near the top of the Devil’s Causeway. 

Without that protection, according to The Nature Conservancy, pikas and their dens are at risk of exposure to the elements. 

The red fox, which can sometimes be seen roaming residential neighborhoods, often use multiple den sites during their breeding and rearing seasons, but typically establish their primary dens — called natal dens — during late winter and use them for multiple years, according to CPW. 

Even though red foxes can dig out their own dens, they often use depressions underneath buildings or sheds, or dens that were excavated by other animals, according to CPW. 

Birds, meanwhile, don’t store fat the way mammals do, and according to CPW, birds can actually benefit from being fed by humans. In addition to feeders, birds can benefit from people planting berry-bearing shrubs in their yard to provide food. 

If using feeders, CPW recommends offering suet (beef fat) during the winter season in mountain areas because it’s a potent source of energy. The agency also suggests hanging feeders high enough that they are out reach from predators. 

Perhaps the oddest local winter migratory pattern, according to Yost, belongs to the dusky grouse, formerly known as the blue grouse. Unlike most creatures, these birds seek higher elevations during the winter. Yost said they live around 7,500 feet elevation during the summer and fall, but are known to spend winters eating conifer needles at 10,000 feet. 

“So, completely different than what you’d expect,” Yost said. “They’re not coming down; they’re actually going up.”

While Yost urges the public to minimize interactions with wildlife during the winter, he does encourage people to get out and observe these animals when possible, albeit from a safe distance. He explained that animals can still suffer negative effects and stress from interactions with humans even if the animals don’t run away. 

Colorado Parks and Wildlife frequently reminds people to avoid interacting with wildlife or allow their pets to intermingle with wild animals. 

“If you let your dog out, make sure that you’re keeping an eye on them,” said Rachael Gonzalez, a CPW spokesperson, who added that pet dogs should be kept on a leash outside when there’s the potential for wildlife interactions because wildlife can exhaust themselves running away from a perceived threat. 

“Just leave wildlife alone,” Gonzalez said. “Let them be wild.”

That is why the US Forest Service enacts seasonal closures of winter range areas for deer and elk. From Dec. 1 to April 15, the Forest Service closed about 12,000 acres of the Routt National Forest that includes trails such as Mad Creek, Red Dirt, Hot Springs and Spring Creek. 

“Watch them,” Yost said. “Just don’t get too close, and make it brief and go on your way.”

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