Frigid temperatures and heavy snowfall across much of Idaho this winter have driven big game animals to low elevations -- and have prompted Idaho Fish and Game to begin emergency feeding in several areas across the southern part of the state.
Fish and Game has commenced winter feeding in the Southwest, the Magic Valley, the Southeast and the Upper Snake regions, according to a Fish and Game news release.
The agency has winter feeding advisory committees in most regions of the state, and those committees are meeting frequently to observe snowfall, temperatures, herd health and other factors to decide if feeding is warranted.
Emergency feeding operations have several goals including helping some animals get through winter -- particularly mule deer, and also keeping wildlife away from populated areas, highways and agriculture operations.
Elk tend to be hardier than deer and more capable of withstanding winter weather, but they also form large herds that can cause problems to ranchers, farmers and other landowners, officials said.
While this has been a challenging winter, wildlife managers pointed out that most big game animals came into the winter in good-to-excellent condition and most should survive, but there's some annual mortality regardless of weather conditions.
“Body condition is such a key thing for deer and elk, especially deer, and we’re very lucky they came into winter in good shape,” said Toby Boudreau, Fish and Game Magic Valley Region Supervisor. “If we were going to have a bad winter, this was the winter to have it because animals are in such good shape.”
Fish and Game officials are also dealing with the aftermath of summer wildfires, particularly in eastern Idaho where the department is feeding nearly 4,000 elk in the Tex Creek area --after large swaths of winter range burned. The feeding operation is intended not only to help animals through the winter, but also keep them away from private lands and highways, officials stated.
A similar feeding operation is planned in the Weiser area, to keep wintering elk off private lands where they can become a nuisance. Wildlife managers are preparing to feed in the Garden Valley area to help wintering mule deer herds, and also keep elk away from towns and homes.
Fish and Game also annually operates an elk feeding site near Ketchum to keep large herds out of subdivisions and towns. Also, work done in the area during 2016 to fence off haystacks is paying dividends by keeping elk away from ranches.
"The good news is: we had lots of places that elk were getting into last year, and this year it's not a problem," Boudreau pointed out. "The stackyard fencing we built has made a huge difference."
Fish and Game has feeding guidelines in place to separate usual winter mortality from excessive mortality brought on by the harsh winter. To start winter feeding, Fish and Game declares an emergency based on environmental and biological conditions -- while working in consultation with regional winter feeding advisory committees.
"We try our best to manage wildlife populations at a level that can be supported by natural habitat without the need for supplemental feeding under normal conditions," state wildlife game manager Jon Rachael said. "But under severe conditions when natural forage is unavailable because of snow depths, or impacts from wildfire, and it appears significant portions of a herd may succumb, we provide some extra help to prevent large losses."
Wildlife managers in north and north-central Idaho report they’re seeing mostly normal winter conditions and do not expect to start any winter feeding. Big game animals typically winter over large areas in those regions, so there’s rarely need for winter feeding, nor is it typically feasible during normal winters because the animals are so widely dispersed.
Deep snow and frigid temperatures can be challenging to all wildlife, and people can help them survive by leaving them alone, authorities said. Animals have a limited amount of fat reserves, and when those are gone, animals are more susceptible to disease, predation and starvation.