In the Gunnison basin, many are asking what happened to all the trophy deer, and when will they stage a comeback?

By Andy Lightbody
If you travel to the Gunnison, Colorado area… a region that has been known for great elk and mule deer hunting, chances are excellent that you are going to notice that the overall deer population is down. Way down, from what it was 4 plus years ago.

The reason? Back in the winter of 2007/08, the Gunnison basin suffered the worst winter (snows and frigid temperatures) in the history of record keeping! Records that go back a full 107 years were shattered with below freezing to below zero temperatures and snows that were unprecedented.

To the sportsmen and other lovers of wildlife, the idea of losing some elk, significant numbers of deer and very significant numbers of antelope, is unacceptable, and many feel that the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) was too slow and too limited in initiating an emergency feeding program. The DOW contends that the situation was being properly monitored and plans were put into place as quickly as possible, when it became apparent that the area was in for what many game biologists and experts term…. The Perfect Killer Storms.

Sportsman’s News recently had the opportunity to talk with J. Wenum, the Gunnison Area Wildlife Manager. A DOW officer with 7 years experience as the Wildlife Manager in Gunnison, and a total of 17 years with the department.


SN: Tell us about the winter of 2007/08?

Wenum: It was the worst winter since anyone has kept records kept….  in 107 years.

2007/08 was a record setting winter here in the Gunnison basin and affected wildlife … all species, including elk on a fairly minor scale, deer on a fairly moderate to significant scale, and pronghorn antelope on a very significant scale. Elk are such a big and hearty animal, mortality was less than 5 percent. And in fact in unit 54, we are still significantly over objective numbers, even 2 years after that winter event. Elk are designed more for deep snows and cold conditions, and we had a very brutal combination of both of those.

We had colder than average temperatures and over twice the normal amount of snow that year. It was over 100 inches, and in some cases that may not seem like much, but when you put that into sage brush country at lower elevations in the Gunnison basin where most animals winter, especially deer….. it has a huge impact.  The snows, unlike most years didn’t really settle and compress. The snow continued to pile up and simply got deeper and deeper, to the point where the landscape was entirely white. There was not any vegetation sticking up through the snows.  Snows in December had a lot of moisture in them and they set up because there was a hard, hard freeze

SN: But hard winters are nothing new to this region of Colorado. In fact, there was a major winter event back in 1996/97. Winter feeding programs were initiated, and we still lost big game, but nothing compared to 2007/08. Why?

Wenum: This one was much worse. This was the perfect storm. Extreme snows, extreme temperatures down into the -35 degree range. Second most brutal…. was back in 1957/58. And it seems there is on average, once a decade, a very hard winter. And the severity of them is what determines the impact on wildlife.

In the early 2000- 2003 timeframe, we had drought conditions that were coupled with pretty mild winters. Around 04-07…. we had more normal precipitation, but winters were not extreme… closer to average. And that allowed the deer population in particular to really take off. We were significantly over our deer population objectives. We were also significantly over our buck/doe population ratios. We had some units that were pushing 60 bucks/does per 100. And there were concerns about impacting our environment, and that the deer herd was getting too big, too quickly. It did however create some phenomenal hunting opportunities, but it was artificially inflated by those conditions, and knowing that about once every decade there’s going to be a hard winter.

SN: Some would say, that the Colorado Division of Wildlife waited too long, to start the feeding program.

Wenum: We started feeding early in the winter, and first snows hit December 6th, 7th, and 8th.  Three days of heavy wet snow, followed by a very cold spell, followed by another significant snow event, followed by another significant cold event. By the end of December we were already looking at the need to feed deer in particular and bait elk, to keep them away from the feed areas, so they would not be in direct competition with the deer.

Wildlife went into the winter, generally in very good condition.

SN: So you and the Colorado DOW acted and initiated a feeding plan as quickly as possible?

Wenum: Literally within a week… we went from not feeding to initiating what would wind up becoming the largest feed operation to my knowledge that has ever been undertaken.

Formal sites that the DOW was involved with, there were 126 active feeding sites scattered across the basin. The majority along the Highway 50 corridor and Highway 114 (Cochetopa canyon area). Areas towards Lake City came later. Other considerations there were we had a limited amount of manpower. We had a significant amount of help here, and the volunteer effort was incredible. However, there was still the reality that we only have so much time, so many people, so much equipment and we have to figure out where to allocate that and once we initiated a spot, we didn’t want to abandon it .

SN: How long did the feeding operation go on?

Wenum: We actually fed through the end of April. It was a nearly 4-month project. And that was everyday, day in and day out.

SN: Then with all the intensive emergency feeding programs, and so widely dispersed why then did we lose so many deer and not elk?

They are different creatures of habit. Wintering patterns can be similar, but their herding methods are different than elk. We did extensive surveys on the ground, actual dead body counts of deer and elk, and we focused more on the deer, as that was the species that was more high profile and the evidence was very clear we had very high mortality rates in some of the severely impacted winter areas. Had we not fed at all, it is extremely difficult to predict what the mortality might have been.

Antelope also took it extremely hard, and we had a mortality rate well in excess of 50%. Antelope here made very abnormal movements because of the amount of snow. When we attempted to feed them, they were far more challenging to feed and that’s been experienced elsewhere.

SN: If you could go back, what would have done differently?

Wenum: I don’t know if we really would have done much different. I will admit I have a somewhat bias view, because I was right in the thick of all of this. But the comments I heard from folks that were involved in previous feed ops, and we had several folks on division (DOW) staff, as well as people from the community who had been involved in the two previous feed efforts– one in 83/84 which was the next biggest feed operation and then 96/97 which was a feed operation but was on a smaller scale… the comments I heard were that we were far more efficient in terms of the timeliness of getting things up and running. Certainly people can question as to why we didn’t start the feeding in December, well Gunnison gets snow and cold. At what point do you make the decision that this is the start to a normal winter, or this is the start to a severe or extraordinary winter?  My looking glass is not that great in terms of forward predictions of weather. But we were certainly looking at weather forecasts.

SN: What did the winter kill back in 1996/1997 show or tell you, as you reflect back on 2007/08, the worst winter in our area’s history?

Wenum: This to me highlights a point that a lot of folks don’t want to get or would prefer to put off…and not really formally acknowledge…. and that is, in a hard winter you will get mortality. It doesn’t matter if you start feeding on day 1. When the first snow flake hits the ground, you can start feeding, but you are not going to save all the deer. Sorry, that is just not a reality. There will be mortality, and some of that mortality will be because they starve. They can’t access food, they are burning far more calories then they are taking in, and physiologically that’s what deer do. They quite literally starve themselves through the winter.  It depends on the longevity of the winter and the reserves that they have going into it, as to how they fair coming out.

SN: And while the deer were not totally wiped out, what did you see after that extreme winter?

Wenum:  What we saw in the summer, immediately after the winter of 2007/08 … we saw decreased fawn recruitments, so the actual number of fawns hitting the ground was greatly depressed. The number that lived through that summer was also reduced, and a lot of that had to do with the body condition of the doe that had the fawn.

SN: So we know that deer have to be tough to survive here in Colorado. What did you see after that?

Wenum: The year after that, the summer of 2009, we started to see a recovery on that, and this year (2010) we are seeing a big recovery. Our number of fawns per 100 does is up and has progressed since the summer of 2008. For 2008 we had 27 fawns per 100 does, then in 2009 we had 33 fawns per 100 does, and the fawn survival for 2008 and 2009, was only 26%. Normally we would see fawn to doe ratios in the 40 to 50% range or more. And we would expect the fawn survival rate to be around that as well.

Current fawn production for 2010 is at 47 fawns per 100 does. So we expect that recovery is well underway.

SN: Springboard ahead…. what now, and for the future?

Wenum: I estimate 3-5 years for recovery, depending on what happens with our summer and winter conditions. And those are the big unknowns. The good news is in the units to the south, where we did not feed as much, (Units 66 and 67) and in fact we fed some, but it was not on the scale that we did to the north, we are looking at actually implementing doe tags on a limited basis for the fall of 2011. We are close to population objectives now and we anticipate with normal conditions we will be at the low end of the population range for that unit.

SN: Any final comments about the feeding program, the success and failure issues that many sportsmen have raised about doing a feeding program earlier?

Wenum:

It’s easy to armchair quarterback things, as we all do with sporting events.  I am sure that there are a lot of sportsmen and sportswomen that would like to armchair quarterback this.

There are so many variables in wildlife management on an annual basis, without throwing in the extreme conditions of drought, fire, severe winter, mudslides and whatever events occur to impact the habitat, which is a key foundation for any population, human or wildlife. Doing the armchair quarterbacking is fun from a speculative standpoint, but I would caution as to if it would alter events in the future. lf anything we need to learn from the historical aspects of what did we do, how did it work and what should we do in future similar events, to increase the success. I can tell you this as final point… we budgeted $420,000 for the feeding program. The total expenditure for the 2007/2008 winter feeding was in excess of $1.75 million dollars.

SN Note: That’s a lot of money expended to save our wildlife. And a lot of $$$ per critter.