CPW planning baiting operation to move deer, elk from highway in Gunnison Basin
GUNNISON, Colo. – In the coming days, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will start a baiting operation in the Gunnison Basin to move deer and elk away from roads and to counter the effects of recent snowfall.
A meeting in Gunnison to discuss the program is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, January 19, at the Fred Field Building at the county fairgrounds, 275 S. Spruce. CPW will be asking people to sign up, volunteering time, equipment, access, and other resources in case they’re needed.
In specific areas along U.S. Highway 50 for about 20 miles to the west and 30 miles to the east of the town of Gunnison, CPW will bait where groups of big game are gathering along and crossing the highway.
“We have seen a spike in road-kill mortality recently,” said J Wenum, CPW’s area wildlife manager in Gunnison. “Our goals are to protect drivers and their passengers by preventing wildlife-vehicle collisions and to be ready to go into a feeding operation if necessary.”
The baiting operation will help CPW to take an adaptive management approach as weather, forage, and animal conditions change throughout the winter. Given the recent mild weather and forecast, CPW is optimistic that deer will survive the winter on their own. However, the bait sites can quickly be converted to feed sites if weather conditions deteriorate.
Significant snowfall in the Gunnison Basin began the first week of January, and so far, about 50 inches have accumulated in the lower elevations along the highway. Those lower elevation areas along the highway are also considered to be critical mule deer winter range. CPW defines critical winter range as areas where 90 percent of the animals spend winters.
“The importance of these wintering areas cannot be overstated,” explained Wenum. “We’ve been watching the situation closely, and so far, deer and elk appear to be doing well. They are able to move through the snow and to dig down to forage.”
According to Wenum, mule deer rely on stored fat to make it through the winter. Disturbing animals on winter range causes them to burn additional fat. People can help wildlife survive the winter by doing the following: Slow down on the highway and watch out for animals at all hours of the day and night. Avoid making long stops and getting out of cars or approaching herds of animals. Avoid recreating in areas where big game animals are congregating. Keep pets on a leash. Respect BLM, U.S. Forest Service and other area closures.
It is illegal to feed big game. Deer and elk have complex digestive systems and have specific dietary needs. Feeding them the wrong foods or feeding them at the wrong time can kill them. In emergency circumstances, with CPW authorization, people can provide food for big game. It is critical that the feed provided be the proper type to meet nutritional needs and be digestible by the species.
The basin has received above average snowfall, and temperatures have been above average. This is in contrast to the winter of 2007-08 when CPW fed deer in the Gunnison Basin and heavy wet snow fell in early December, followed by extreme cold. That winter, more than 100 inches of snow fell and remained on the ground through May. Deer had a difficult time moving and digging through crusted snow for food.
Deer and elk are have evolved to survive harsh Colorado winters. Due to a long, warm fall, deer went into the winter in good physical condition. CPW will continue to monitor winter range conditions, evaluate the body condition of deer, observe their behavior, and examine deer that have died to check fat-stores. If wildlife managers observe that range conditions have deteriorated, animal body conditions have declined excessively, and foresee that large numbers of deer could die, CPW could quickly ramp up to a feeding effort.
“We know that people understand winter is a very difficult time of year for wildlife and that some winter mortality is natural and expected,” said Patt Dorsey, CPW’s southwest region manager. “We want to be flexible and nimble to changing conditions in the basin and are asking the public to support requests from CPW and local land management agencies.”
Some people have asked why CPW didn’t start feeding already. Any major operation takes time to organize and requires a lot logistically: specially formulated feed, specialized equipment, resources, volunteers, additional staff, etc.
“This is not a decision that CPW takes lightly,” Dorsey explained. “There are pros, cons and a lot of unknowns here. We would love to have a crystal ball.”
There are many considerations and trade-offs. Recent studies have demonstrated that concentrating deer in large numbers can increase disease transmission. Cost is another consideration. The 2007-08 operation cost $2.8 million.
“Our primary concern is the long-term sustainability of deer herds in the Gunnison Basin,” Dorsey said. “We know that’s the public’s concern, too and we appreciate their support. This will be a team effort, no matter what — and we need everyone on the same team.”