Drought conditions that forced ranchers across state lines in search of hay have also brought deer and elk to the low country in search of food.
Many times, that food is high-priced hay ranches are hoarding for their livestock.
In some cases the losses are staggering.
Susan Nottingham, owner of a ranch in Burns, Colo., estimated she lost 300 tons of hay to a 2,500 head elk herd that came through in December.
"The overabundance of wildlife is going to put agriculture out of business," she said. "People in Colorado would rather have deer and elk and condominiums in their backyards than ranchers."
Nottingham trucked hay in from Idaho after losing 70 percent of her crop and 1,400 cattle to drought. She sold a portion of her breeding cattle and yearlings to get the rest of her herd through the winter on limited resources that they have to compete with voracious elk to get.
"The problem is on a good year, it's bad, but in a drought year, it's devastating," Nottingham said.
Though big game animals can still find water in the high country, the quality of forage is declining. Deer, elk and antelope are left searching for food in urban areas where they can cause damage to crops, shrubs and trees.
The problem reached it's height during the summer, when roving animals destroyed struggling crops, but it's continued into the winter months.
"On a dry year like this, the forage quantity and quality are limited," Colorado Division of Wildlife District Wildlife Manager Bailey Franklin said. "Anywhere where there's high quality forage, they congregate."
The Division of Wildlife replaced 100 tons of Nottingham's through its Habitat Partnership Program, a decision Nottingham said has been subject to some dispute.
"They didn't want to do it because their funds are limited and they were afraid if they bought me hay, they would have to buy some for all ranchers," she said. "I certainly believe I deserve the hay that I got and under some circumstances I think it is (the role of that program to buy hay)."
Once they cleaned her out of hay, the elk left, but Nottingham fears as the weather warms and the snow melts, they'll be back to feed on her pastureland.
"I think they'll be flooding back," she said. "Going into spring I'm hoping there will be some grass, but I'm afraid the elk will clean out the grass before I get the cattle in there."
The problem seems to affect specific ranchers and doesn't seem to be more widespread than usual, said Division of Wildlife spokesman Todd Malmsbury.
"The animals are coming down this time of year because that's where the food is," he said. "It happens every year to some extent in some places."
Malmsbury said the Division has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars mitigating damage to crops, fences and feed by deer and elk.
"We were concerned we would have significant die offs because of a lack of forage and we have not had any significant problems with deer and elk starving," he said.
Ranchers say that's because they're feeding -- inadvertently -- the animals.
"This is definitely a problem," Nottingham said.
Malmsbury said the problem is localized to some areas and the DOW is working to extend hunting seasons and offer special seasons to ease the pressure on ranchers.
"Forage is more and more important," he said. "It's more valuable to ranchers now and they're going to need that for livestock."
Meeker rancher Reed Kelly serves on the statewide Habitat Partnership Program (HPP)
Money is diverted from hunting license fees to fund the HPP and that money is used to alleviate the conflict between wildlife and domestic animals. Local committees distribute the money.
There are five Northwest Colorado HPP committees.
Kelly said he's not had a big problem with foraging deer and elk, but he's talked to several ranchers who have.
"We've had elk eat a whole stack of hay," he said. "Lot's of people near Hamilton are having a lot of trouble. It's absolutely something we're concerned about and are investing in."
Kelly believes it's a bigger problem this year because of the summer's drought and because the herd numbers are as high or higher than they've ever been.
"The elk push the cows off the feed on the ground or get to it first," he said. It's definitely a problem some people have and it's a bigger problem this year than we've ever had before. It's definitely a challenge. No question about it."
A national study conducted by the U.S.D.A.'s Agricultural Statistics Service identified deer damage as the most widespread form of wildlife damage. Forty percent of
farmers report experience with deer damage.
"While wild animals provide many different benefits to different people, to some, they can be nothing but a nuisance. In our part of the state where wildlife populations flourish and more people move into the comforts of rural areas, the tendency for human/wildlife conflict becomes more common," said wildlife specialist Kevin Yost.
According to Franklin, the DOW will reimburse landowners for their wildlife-caused damage if there is sufficient evidence of the damage. Producers must be eligible for the reimbursement and farmers or ranchers who double as outfitters or otherwise encourage the migration of big game onto their in the winter do not qualify.
That's the difference between the DOW's game damage program and HPP programs, which don't discriminate between hunting and non-hunting properties.
Franklin said there have been more claims this year because
of the drought, but he didn't know
the exact number.
The DOW will also help landowners remove the animals.
"If we get a report of animals in a field, we'll go out and look at the situation and see if it's something we can handle by just driving them off," Franklin said.
If a property owner reports damage because of big game grazing, they could be issued a special hunting "dispersal" permit to harvest some of the animals, which effectively drives away the remaining herd.
In extreme cases, the DOW will conduct damage hunting.
Don't feed the animals
Besides being illegal, feeding big game animals can help contribute to the spread of disease -- particularly chronic wasting disease.
"We strongly suspect that crowding of deer and elk from artificial feeding contributes directly to the transmission of chronic wasting disease," said Mike Miller, Division of Wildlife veterinarian. "We know that artificial feeding concentrates animals and accelerates the spread of diseases like brucellosis and tuberculosis -- all the evidence indicates the case is the same for chronic wasting disease.
"There are some very sound reasons," said Todd Malmsbury, Division of Wildlife spokesman. "It's bad for the animals. They get food they shouldn't have in a setting they shouldn't be in. Disease transmission is also a concern. It's not a new concern, but it's more in focus now because of chronic wasting disease."
This winter and spring, Division of Wildlife officers will be warning homeowners who feed. In cases where people choose not to stop feeding, they will be issued a ticket. The fine for feeding big game illegally is $68 and a person can be fined for each offense.
"We really have to have the public's cooperation on this," Malmsbury said. "We don't have that many game wardens."
Malmsbury said the problem is generally worse on the Front Range where people enjoy having wildlife close to their homes. On the Western Slope, where contact with wildlife is common, people don't seem to be as enamored.
"They look at wildlife in a different way than people on the Western Slope who tend to have more experience with wildlife," he said.
Besides contributing to the spread of diseases, feeding habituates
wildlife to people, Clarkson said.
"In the case of deer and elk, feeding can cause increased property damage and increased wildlife-vehicle accidents.
Wildlife managers offer the following tips to residents living in or near
areas where chronic wasting disease occurs:
- Do not feed deer or elk. Unless it's for domestic livestock, refrain
from putting out salt or any attractant that causes deer to unnaturally
concentrate, including heated water.
- Encourage your neighbors not to feed big game.
- Report sick deer and elk. Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays call
your local Division of Wildlife office. During other times, call the
Colorado State Patrol and they can contact a wildlife officer.
- In areas affected by the disease, report any deer or elk that has
recently died. The Colorado Division of Wildlife can test the heads of
deer and elk that have been hit by cars or die from other causes. Report
any deer or elk that are collared or ear tagged. Note the location, date
and time the animal was observed. Also note the color, position and any
alpha-numeric symbols on the ear tag or collar.
Chronic wasting disease is a fatal neurological disease found in wild deer and elk in areas of northeastern and northwestern Colorado, southeastern
Wyoming and seven other states and Canadian provinces. On average, the rate of infection in affected areas in northeast Colorado is between four percent and five percent in deer and less than one percent in elk. The disease attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose coordination and die. Currently there are no vaccines or treatment to prevent or cure chronic wasting disease in deer or elk.
Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at email@example.com