Wildlife officials work to help elk, deer survive tough Northwest Colorado winter | CraigDailyPress.com

Wildlife officials work to help elk, deer survive tough Northwest Colorado winter

Elk search for food near Maybell in Moffat County. According to state wildlife officials, the heavy snowfall and extreme cold this winter have been especially hard on local wildlife.
Colorado Parks & Wildlife/Courtesy photo

With snow piled high throughout Craig and Moffat County, wildlife has struggled this winter to break through 30 inches or more of hard-packed snow to get to food.

According to Colorado Parks and Wildlife, news that another round of snow and cold was coming to Northwest Colorado was the last thing local wildlife officials wanted to hear, especially given the area’s large elk herds. 

With heavy snow and extreme cold since October, food has became more scarce throughout the winter months. Additionally, many local ranchers and landowners have been noticing an increase in the number of elk getting into feed lines set out for cattle, horses and other livestock.

In addition to creating extra costs for the ranchers, the scenario also presents an issue for the safety of the livestock because elk can be aggressive and stomp livestock and their newborns to get to hay.

In January, CPW staff in the Craig area knew something needed to be done. As game damage claims continued to increase, CPW staff began working on a plan to address the ongoing concerns and reduce increasing conflicts. On Feb. 2, wildlife officers began a baiting operation to reduce conflict with livestock and game damage from elk. 

Now, it has become a full-time job for district wildlife managers, who have sat down with ranchers and landowners to try to identify what the issues are and find solutions.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff spread hay off a snowcat to bait elk away from livestock west of Craig.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

For some, the solution is to have CPW replenish the hay lost to elk. For others, it’s using hay provided by CPW to bait the elk away from their feed lines. In most cases, CPW provides the hay, but the landowners are doing the work of creating and managing the bait lines.

According to the state agency, CPW has also helped some landowners bait wildlife on their own by plowing snow, making it easier to get to areas farther back on their land to prevent elk from walking back and forth between the bait line and their feed lines. CPW staff has been responsible for managing the bait line for a few landowners too.

According to CPW, on one cold morning in late February, staff gathered at the agency’s shop in Craig to load hay and equipment. After a quick meeting to go over that day’s plans, the team set off for the first of several deliveries.

The team arrived at its first location along the Yampa River drainage near Maybell, and the temperature was minus 9 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, they prepared a snowcat and snowmobiles for baiting operations to help a half-dozen landowners in the area, baiting away around 200-250 elk. 

Using the snowcat, District Wildlife Managers Seth Schwolert and Evan Jones made their way to the larger bait area where hay would be placed, enticing the elk to the area.

Just over the hill, Assistant Area Wildlife Managers John Lambert and Mike Swaro used small bales of hay to create a line leading elk at a nearby ranch to the larger bait site where Schwolert and Jones were working. When the lines were set, the teams went back to the vehicles to load equipment, then to the shop to pick up the next load and head out once again. 

This back-and-forth routine has become second nature for local staff, according to CPW. The days run from early in the morning until after the sun has set seven days a week as district wildlife managers try to help the local community, even during another round of snow.

Since the baiting operation began in January, area wildlife staff have reportedly distributed more than 1,000 tons of hay to around 100 landowners and ranchers in Craig, Maybell, Rangely and surrounding areas.

In addition to hay, CPW has worked with people in the community to provide panels to protect hay stacks. For CPW, the goal is to reduce conflicts with livestock by providing just enough to lead elk and deer away and encourage them to move on. The goal is not to provide enough food to survive the winter.

Deer cluster in a group near a bait site west of Craig.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife/Courtesy photo

Additionally, CPW credits the support of ranchers, landowners and community members, as well as financial support from the Habitat Partnership Program State Council, for their help. As of March 15, the council has provided more than $350,000 for hay, deer pellets, paneling and snow removal. Funding for the Habitat Partnership Program comes from the sale of big game licenses in Colorado. 

While local staff have seen improvements in conditions for some locations, CPW staff is stressing that there is still a long way to go. According to CPW, the next 30 to 90 days will be crucial for wildlife’s survival. However, CPW is also reminding people that while agency officials hope CPW’s efforts will help all animals in Northwest Colorado, there are more than 50,000 year-round elk and deer spread out across 10,200 square miles, so it’s simply not possible.

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