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Protecting Winter Wildlife in the Wood River Valley
Monday, February 6, 2023


“Rest.” she said.  “Rest is the best for wildlife,” repeated Sierra Robatcek, the Regional Wildlife Population Biologist from Idaho Fish and Game.

I was listening to a presentation sponsored by the Hailey Library about ways to help wintering wildlife.

It was interesting to learn that it isn’t the cold that bothers moose, deer, elk, and pronghorn, which are called ungulates, or hooved animals. The hair that makes up their furry winter coats is hollowwhich allows air to be trapped to retain body warmth, allowing them to make it through -30-degree temperatures.

Pronghorn, which used to be called antelope, have evolved to survive -50-degree temperatures.

While we love skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, and snowshoeing, the long winter is hard on these animals. A scarce food supply, exposed hillsides, deep snow, and steep terrain challenge their desperate need to conserve energy. They must survive on body fat stored from spring, summer, and fall’s bounty.

Wildlife essentially fast all winter so they need those reserves to survive until spring. Causing them to move, stop feeding or get up from their beds or away from thermal cover makes them use precious energy in their vital fat stores.

The cold, heavy snow years like we’re having this year are especially challenging. Many of them not only have fawns or calves by their sides but are pregnant with next year’s young. Each time we disturb them when they are bedded down and resting, they are less likely to survive the winter.

Although our focus in this story is on deer, elk and pronghorn, moose also need winter rest. They tend to look for protection in the riparian areas and under trees which may reduce the snow height to ease their movement and allow for some forage. In the Wood River Valley, many moose have become habituated to humans because we’ve built homes in their historic range.

Recreation may cause wildlife to move down slope into the Valley. Typical winter range is on south and west-facing slopes, aspects protected from the wind and in canyons where they won’t be disturbed.  But in a heavy snow year, elk, deer, and pronghorn often travel into town and use our yards, city parks, cemeteries, roads, and walkways to move around.  Otherwise, they simply can’t negotiate deep snow, our urban environment, recreational use, traffic, and people.

They may also move into the riparian environment along the Big Wood River and use irrigation ditches that have vegetation for cover and safety. These corridors support wildlife and their movements year ’round. Some now stay all winter and have become habituated to humans, which can be a hazard to both.

Many attempt to follow age-old migration corridors to the south that the fawns and calves learn from their mothers. Some mule deer have recently been tracked by GPS collars travelling over 120 miles from Galena Summit to near Twin Falls, crossing five highways and multiple fences.  Each year barriers to their migration--a wonder of nature--increase. Highways and fences are the two most disruptive barriers. 

Both can prove fatal to wildlife. 

Before we built homes on the broad plain that is the Wood River Valley, wildlife probably spent their lives here. The fact that they are killed in high numbers on Highway 75 trying to cross to the river bottom, such as at East Fork north of Hailey and south of Bellevue, tells us they probably made those kinds of movements before cars and development increased.

With population, recreation, and new subdivisions on the increase, wildlife will be affected, especially in winter and summer range, on migration routes and in riparian habitat.

Lili Simpson, who has been observing wildlife movements in the County for many years, notes that many deer and elk winter on the south- and west-facing slopes of Parker Peak near Quigley Pond. Multiple deer died near this area in the deep snows of 2017.

Backcountry skiers and snowboarders coming from the Quigley or Indian Creek side may surprise elk in Hangman drainage north of the pond and in the Parker Peak area. Deer migrate along the ridges southeast of the pond. They also live and move across the south-facing hillsides above Quigley Road in all seasons.

Quigley Canyon is a contiguous block of winter habitat. Research has shown that Red Devil/Cutter’s, Hangman Gulch, and neighboring gulches are home to between 400 and 500 deer in winter. This is the highest density of wintering deer in the valley.

As our recreation numbers grow, be aware when recreating on any Wood River Valley south facing slopes, and adjacent ones where you may disturb animals while going uphill.

You can help to support wildlife in winter’s challenging weather and all year. 
If you plan to walk, ski or snowmobile in areas where wildlife winter, here’s what you can do: 

  • Know their winter (and summer) range and avoid recreating in important habitat.
  • Look before heading into any canyon or up any slope. It’s easy to spot tracks. Look for areas where wildlife bed on a slope under snow-covered sagebrush. Sometimes it is difficult to spot them when they are tunneled in, and snow is deep.
  • If you see wildlife, re-route your travel or go somewhere else.
  • If you encounter wildlife, be sensitive and know what to do: turn around if you make them get up or move
  • Never approach wildlife: it’s not likely to turn out well for either of you.
  • Teach your children the importance of not disturbing wildlife.
  • Control your dogs or leave them at home. Even small dogs are seen as predators by wildlife.  

    Here are a few things you can do around your house to keep wildlife safe:

  • Cover window wells. Deer and elk often fall into window wells while navigating around buildings. Removing them is a dangerous job for both the animal and the human.
  • Remove entanglements and potential hazards like tomato cages, swings, and other backyard toys.
  • String Christmas lights above 6 feet.
  • Do not feed wildlife and encourage your neighbors not to feed wildlife.
  • Drain ponds. Thin ice can be extremely hazardous for deer and elk.
  • Don’t plant ornamental yew and tear out any yew on your property. Yew plants are deadly for deer, elk, moose, pets, and humans.
  • Secure your garbage.
  • Don’t leave dog food outside.
  • Always leash your dog after dark and put a light on their collar.

We each carry a responsibility for our wildlife.  Deer, elk, and pronghorn are an important part of healthy sage steppe habitat and are the icons of the West.

How can we help them the most? Let them rest.

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