Big-game feeding reserved for emergencies

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Courtesy photo Traci Skiles, of Osburn, captured this photo of elk making their way through Wallace around 3 a.m. Friday, Dec. 30.

Big game animals are congregating at low elevations, including near towns and homes after December snow blanketed much of Idaho, and with it some frigid temperatures. Some people are concerned about animals surviving through winter, but so far, Fish and Game has only started emergency feeding in Eastern Idaho where a wildfire last summer burned much of the available forage. Fish and Game is also feeding in the Wood River Valley to keep elk away from the highway and to reduce damage.

Winter can be tough on big game animals, and people can help them by leaving them alone. Animals have a limited amount of fat reserves, and when those are gone, animals are more susceptible to disease, predation and starvation.

Even if this winter turns out to be normal in terms of temperature and snowfall, some animals won’t make it. On average, about 50 percent of fawns die during winter, and about a third of the elk calves. Adult survival for deer and elk is typically more than 90 percent. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the hardiest, fittest animals survive and pass their genetics to the next generation.

Fish and Game has winter feeding guidelines in place to separate normal winter mortality from extreme mortality brought on by unusually harsh winters. To start winter feeding, Fish and Game must declare an emergency based on environmental and biological conditions while working in consultation with regional winter feeding advisory committees.

Committees are formed in each of Fish and Game’s regions where emergency winter feeding occurs, and those committees provide timely information to regional Fish and Game supervisors so each can decide if emergency winter conditions exist.

Advisory committees and Fish and Game monitor snow depth, temperatures and quality of forage on winter range. Extreme weather can also trigger winter feeding, such as five consecutive days when temperatures remain below zero degrees, snow depths deeper than 18 inches on south facing slopes, and other variables.

Fish and Game has a long-standing policy to manage big-game herds at levels that natural habitat can support, and herds have grown in recent years thanks to mild-to-moderate winters.

Fish and Game officials are closely monitoring more than 900 deer and elk wearing radio collars across the state, and will respond based on information passed along daily from the radio collars. If winter conditions worsen dramatically and emergency criteria are met, Fish and Game is prepared to respond quickly to help struggling big game.

“Monitoring 900 or more deer and elk will not only provide a daily update on welfare of the herds, but it also gives us scientific information on survival through the entire winter,” White said. “Especially in places where there are no people to provide information about the animals.”

More information about winter big game feeding can be found at: https://idfg.idaho.gov/conservation/winter-feeding.

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Roger Phillips is a public information specialist employed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

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