CPW: Give wildlife a break — it’s a matter of life and death

David J. Rehak Suma
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
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 while conserving energy.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

This has been an extraordinary winter for Steamboat Spring’s outdoor recreationists. Over 300 inches of snow on the mountain has been a gift for those of us who enjoy the outdoors in the winter. Such a freeze yields plenty of benefits for our wildlife in disease prevention and parasite reduction.

As the winter drags on, our wildlife seek reprieve. Often, that means walking in places that have less snowpack, places where they can find warmth and shelter from the elements and places where their food — twigs and the buds from trees mostly, for our elk and moose — hasn’t yet been ravished. 

That refuge will likely become your neighborhood or your driveway. A nice black driveway, plowed and heated by the sun, might be equivalent to a day at Strawberry Park Hot Springs for one of our local ungulates (hoofed mammals). If you can, take a moment to realize that luxury as if you were a pregnant, 600-pound animal.

Imagine the struggle of trying to ingest and digest 10-50 pounds of twigs and buds every day to survive through our cold nights and long winter. Every day is a battle for these animals. For some, it is one they will not win. Often, they will be within weeks, or even days, of starving when the spring thaw finally begins.

Anything they can do to reduce their caloric needs, they will. For the most part, saving that energy comes from resting. That is made much easier by a warm, dry, place to lay down. There is a cost of utilizing our infrastructure though; the stress of us being around, and being around with our animals.

The wildlife that you see in town are those willing to risk the costs associated with us, for the benefits that come with it. They come to town because they think the people of Steamboat Springs are less stressful than the conditions they encounter in the backcountry. Not all of them agree, because this is a calculated decision with an uncertain outcome. It is a gamble, on their part, that depends entirely on how we act. 

You can help. The most effective thing you can do is to care enough to look out for them. In times like this, injury can be devastating. However, that number will be exceeded by those that quietly succumb from stress. The degree of harassment from people getting too close, or to a dog off-leash chasing animals, will be the difference between life and death for even more of them than will be, and have already been, hit by cars.

Steamboat loves its wildlife. But loving your wildlife well requires the empathy to stay away from them. We must be constantly aware that they might be just around the corner. For, if we are going to continue living with wildlife, we must have the courage to educate those around us about why it is so important to give them a break, especially in a winter like this one. 

We have the chance to live in concert with our wildlife in this place. A gift that becomes more rare every day. It is up to us and our actions to do this in a way that provides for their needs, as well as our desires.

David J. Rehak Suma is the district wildlife manager covering Steamboat Springs and central Routt County for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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