Winter conditions have caused Northwest Colorado elk herds to migrate closer to Craig than in seasons past, Colorado Division of Wildlife officials said.
A summer drought combined with winter snows have changed where some animals are spending the winter, said Mike Bauman of DOW.
"During a recent fly-over, we noticed that herds have not migrated west to Maybell as in years past," he said. "North of Highway 40, most of the distribution of elk is in the eastern part of the county. If you drew a line north of Lay, they are staying east of that."
Pipeline construction projects last winter may have altered some migration patterns, but this year the lack of vegetation is keeping elk herds in eastern Moffat County.
"There is no winter range available for them north of Maybell and on Godiva Rim," Bauman said. "That's why we're seeing them more than usual near haystacks and feed lots."
He agreed with long-time residents that the winter of 2006-2007 is more in the "normal" range than winters experienced during the recent drought years.
He also pointed out that Craig is located on a winter range for animals, and because ranchers have moved their cattle and sheep herds further from town, the vegetation has more opportunity to grow, making it desirable for wildlife.
Also a factor, Bauman said, is the increasing number of 5- and 10-acre ranches located in subdivisions surrounding Craig. In those subdivisions, some owners have livestock and horses, which results in an increasing number of unfenced haystacks to attract elk.
Bauman said snows this winter have yet to reach a depth that prevents wildlife from feeding.
"As long as the snow is light, the elk can paw through it and do fairly well," Bauman said. "It's after a thaw with a following freeze when a crust layer forms and makes it hard to get through that we have significant mortality rates."
He pointed to the 1992-93 winter as an example of a hard crust layer forming, causing the deaths of many young elk calves and fawns.
Younger animals are most affected by prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures, and the January cold spells in Moffat County likely have raised mortality rates in the county's deer population, Bauman said.
"Mule deer are primarily browsers, surviving off of sagebrush and serviceberry bushes," he said. "The snow depth and lack of vegetation going into the winter is tough on the deer population."
What happens with the weather in the next few months could have a significant impact on local deer herds, Bauman said. Policy prevents the DOW from feeding wildlife unless high mortality rates are projected, such as the 1983-84 winter, when snow on the ground was 33 inches deep. That was the last time the DOW stepped in to feed the wild herds.
This year, an estimated 18 inches of snow is on the ground, and Bauman urges the public not to feed any wild animals.
"It's illegal to feed them, but worse than that is the harm it does to their digestive systems," Bauman said. "From a nutritional standpoint, whatever they are fed will likely cause problems for them later."
Although harvest numbers are not yet in from last year's elk hunting season, Bauman estimates that an average harvest took place, leaving the Bear's Ears herd near 15,000 animals, close to the objective set by the DOW.
He reminds wildlife viewers and pet owners that big game animals are currently in survival mode, and any stress that causes the animals to run burns precious calories needed to survive the winter.