Icy roads, inversions, cold weather and runny noses. Winter isn’t always the most fun time of year.
But for big game animals, winter is more than just an inconvenience. Their very survival is at stake.
Each year mule deer, elk, moose, pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep move out of their forest and mountain ranges to escape the heavy snow. They spend the winters on private ranches, sagebrush flats and in valley bottoms to take advantage of lower snow and nutritious plants. But winter is taxing. The animals' fat reserves will run low by spring.
That’s why they need healthy habitat in their winter range to survive.
Big game animals also need your help. Winter is a stressful time for them. You can help lessen that stress. .
Here are some tips so you can “lend a helping hoof” for these special animals during the winter:
1. Give big game space. Mule deer and other wildlife are running low on fat reserves, especially late in winter. Causing them to run or move burns precious calories. Even getting close enough to cause a deer to stand up is harmful. Give big game plenty of space as you’re out recreating this winter. Don’t get too close.
2. Don’t go there! Some places are better to avoid altogether. Areas with large herds of wintering deer should be left to the deer, if possible. Be sure to observe Idaho Department of Fish and Game closures to protect deer and big game. Note:The Boise River Wildlife Management Area is closed through March 31 to protect the deer and elk.
3. Keep Fido on a leash. Sure, we know your dog is a lovely, charming pet, good with kids and loyal to family. But to a deer, that dog is a dangerous predator. Be sure your dog doesn’t chase deer and keep it under your control on your hikes and skiing trips in the backcountry.
4. Give deer a brake. Roads are deadly for wintering wildlife. Give yourself time to get to your location and drive a little slower, particularly at dawn and dusk. Keep an eye out for animals along the road. And be especially careful in areas marked with “deer crossing” signs. You’ll save the deer—and your insurance bill.
5. Keep them off the road. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game is seeking support for wildlife-friendly roads, particularly along roads near the Boise Foothills—like Warm Springs Avenue and Highway 21—that kill large numbers of deer each year. Wildlife underpasses have been proven to save a lot of animals. They just need public support to happen.
6. Plant some “deer candy.” Deer love bitterbrush. It’s nutritious and provides an excellent winter food source. Some biologists call it “deer candy.” Sagebrush is also important forage. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game annually seeks volunteers to help plant these shrubs in burned and damaged areas. It’s a great way to help restore more habitat for the deer, to get them through the winter.
7. Say no to weeds. Non-native weeds can wipe out native sagebrush habitat. You can help stop their spread. Clean your hiking boots, ATV and outdoor gear after each use.
8. Join The Nature Conservancy. With your support, we are working to protect winter range around the state. Your donations can help protect the ranches, farms and timber lands so important to big game. Our work creates a hopeful future for Idaho where herds of mule deer and pronghorn antelope still roam across the landscape, a future of bugling elk and battling bighorns and the working farms and ranches they need to survive.
Matt Miller is a senior science writer for The Nature Conservancy World Office. He writes frequently about conservation for the Conservancy on nature.org, as well as the Conservancy's blogs Cool Green Science.
Matt is a board member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. His articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Living Bird, Sports Afield, Bugle, Mule Deer, Grist and many others. He has traveled around the world in search of wildlife and stories.