Most Denver metro area residents are curled up inside during snowstorms and the coldest days of winter, but outside, there’s a whole other battle occurring. The birds, deer, elk, prairie dogs, …
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Most Denver metro area residents are curled up inside during snowstorms and the coldest days of winter, but outside, there’s a whole other battle occurring.
The birds, deer, elk, prairie dogs, bears and the hundreds of other species in the area are sheltering, using instincts — honed over generations — to survive.
“One thing people need to understand is that wildlife is very sensitive,” said Andy Hough, environmental resource coordinator for Douglas County. “They can sense the storm coming.”
Many nearby animals will begin increasing their feeding in preparation to endure the storm without much access to food, Hough said. They will also move to a better location, such as an area with lower elevation, or a place with trees or shrubs, to shelter from the storm.
“Every species is different and all react somewhat differently,” Hough said. “They have the instincts to do what they need to do.”
Bears, which sometimes make their way into the metro area, may end up remaining in their winter dens longer when there are significant spring storms like the one Denver saw in mid-March, said Jason Clay, spokesperson for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“Winter is one of the seasons where it can be a little bit harder on wildlife. They have to search a little harder for food,” Clay said. “But the moisture overall is a very good thing in the long run.”
This precipitation helps prevent future wildfires and fosters natural food growth in the spring.
“Big game animals are looking for green that comes with spring. The green grasses help with nutrition,” Clay said. “Big storms may have short-term impacts on the wintering animals, but great long-term benefits.”
These animals have adapted to situations like the historic snowfall seen in the Denver area in March, Hough said.
“While that storm seemed intense for us, it is not abnormal for this area,” he said. “These types of storms have been happening since the beginning of time.”
It’s not unusual for residents to see birds and deer using their home’s trees to hide away from these storms.
“They are using that landscape anyway,” he said. “It’s not unnatural for them to curl up under someone’s spruce tree.”
The Denver area sees everything from mountain lions and bears to foxes, owls and sometimes even moose.
One of the most important things for residents who notice local wildlife during the cold months to know is that they shouldn’t attempt to help animals by feeding them.
“You can put feeders out for birds, but most other cases are illegal,” Hough said. “Much of what we feed wildlife is not the best thing for them, and it can cause health problems.”
Feeding can also lead animals to change their habits, which can cause nuisances and dangerous situations.
“These animals are very rugged.” Clay said. “They can survive these tough winters on their own … they don’t need our help.”
CPW has had many problems with residents feeding animals, which can result in death for the animal, disrupted migrations and other issues, Clay said.
Another way residents can help these wild animals is by respecting local trail closures. In the Highlands Ranch Backcountry, an 8200-acre conservation area, wildlife managers close one trail system to help local golden eagles and elk populations get through winter.
“Elk survival strategy in the winter is to conserve as many calories as possible,” said Mark Giebel, director of the wilderness area. “If they have to move and burn calories to avoid humans, their winter survival rate is in jeopardy.”
Over the winter, elk are slowly starving due to the lack of food available in the season, Giebel said. That’s why the Wildcat Mountain trails, which serve as a historic elk wintering area and sometimes a golden eagle habitat, are closed during the winter.
“The winter closure over the past few years has not been effective, likely due to people violating the closure,” Giebel said. “After most snowstorms we would see tracks of people who violated (it).”
This year, Giebel’s team has put up trail cameras to deter people from entering the area.
Hough’s team, like many in the front range, also works to preserve local wildlife by studying their movements and habits and coordinating that with upcoming development in the region. That includes adding wildlife corridors through projects like I-25.
“Mobility is an important factor for their life’s regimen but especially during critical times during harsh weather,” he said.
As more and more of the front range is developed and built upon, this task becomes increasingly difficult for wildlife managers.
“We can all have a part in conservation by trying to maintain natural habitats, improve degraded habitats and minimize disturbances,” Hough said.
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