February 13, 2008
Winter Feeding Program Draws Support, Warning from Elk Foundation
MISSOULA, Mont.—Responding to an emergency declaration by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is sending funds to help feed thousands of elk, deer and antelope starving in deep-snow conditions.
But the Elk Foundation’s financial support comes with a warning about severe winterkill as a symptom of an even more debilitating disease—habitat loss.
“Artificially feeding elk is a poor substitute for protecting their native habitat,” said Jack Blackwell, vice president of lands and conservation for the Elk Foundation. “In general, some winter mortality is normal. It’s nature’s way of balancing herds with their habitat. But when too much winter range is lost to urban development or invasive weeds, a harsh winter can be a catastrophic reminder of our obligation to conserve land.”
Colorado’s wildlife habitat is being lost at alarming rates as cities sprawl and ranchettes consume open spaces long used by wintering elk.
“If we don’t act urgently to protect habitat, especially Colorado’s winter range, eventually the balance will tip so far against wildlife that severe winterkill will become the norm, not the exception,” predicted Blackwell.
Biologists say Colorado is experiencing brutal weather in many areas, with Gunnison Basin listed as the worst. Snowpack levels are among highest ever recorded with many weeks of winter remaining. At the same time, nighttime temperatures are falling as low as 35 degrees below zero.
Pronghorn antelope and mule deer are hardest hit. Emergency feeding is underway for approximately 6,500 deer and 500 antelope at 105 locations on federal and private lands.
About 2,500 elk are being fed weed-free hay dropped from helicopters. Though elk are faring better than deer and antelope, some biologists worry about fewer births and greater calf mortality next spring.