After the fires: Will Idaho's deer, elk be OK this winter?

Large swaths of habitat burned over the summer, but so far animals in Idaho have been able to fatten up on lots of food

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comNovember 14, 2013 

  • WHEN FIRE MIGHT NOT BE SO BAD

    The Elk Complex and Pony Complex fires killed and displaced wildlife, but the direct effect on deer and elk is likely to be relatively small.

    They are typically good at outrunning fire, and it wasn't that hard for displaced herds to find good forage.

    Forest Service biologist Scott Bodle said 67 mule deer and 36 elk died in the Elk Complex Fire. Fish and Game biologist Michelle Kemner said some on House Mountain near Anderson Ranch Reservoir were unable to escape.

    Some wildlife take a long time to return to burned areas, but deer and elk will move back in soon, particularly if there's moving water.

    The fires were a short-term stress but probably didn't affect the herds heading into winter, "as long as they were not injured and could find refuge," Kemner said.

    In the long run, fire can be good for elk and deer. Fires destroy tree canopy and burn needles on the ground, allowing the growth of grasses and shrubs. After large fires swept through North Idaho forests in the early 1900s, elk populations exploded.

Two massive wildfires that burned east of Boise blackened more than 280,500 acres, including 160,000 acres of winter range used by mule deer and elk.

Thousands of deer and elk spend the spring and summer fattening up in the mountains of the Boise National Forest. When snow and harsh weather conditions arrive, the animals usually begin migrating to the Foothills of the Boise Front and the Danskins.

For most of the year, elk and deer eat grasses and green, leafy plants. In the winter, they turn to "browse" - shrubs such as bitterbrush.

Surviving the winter has a lot to do with how robust the animals are before it hits, said Craig White, regional wildlife manager for Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

State wildlife managers say they aren't sure how the deer and elk will react when they discover that some of their favorite spots were burned bare.

Some greenery has sprouted since the fires and there should be enough forage this winter, said Michelle Kemner, a regional wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

But if that new growth gets buried in six or more inches of crusty snow - and it lasts for weeks - there could be problems with deer fawn survival.

And if the area gets a wet, cold winter with lots of snow, state wildlife biologists worry that animals could wander into private property and cross Interstate 84 looking for food. The fear is that the game could damage fences, eat stored food and pose a hazard to motorists.

In the harsh winter of 2007-08, elk congregated on the interstate from Mayfield to Mountain Home, south of the Danskins. There were 400 to 500 elk that wintered on Lockman Butte, north of Mountain Home - a rare occurrence.

DEER ON THE HIGHWAY

Idaho Fish and Game officials met in September with about a dozen property owners most likely to be affected if the deer and elk do stray from traditional winter grounds.

"We want to be proactive," White said. "We don't want to wait until January, when the deer and elk show up on their property."

No feeding sites are planned. If the elk or deer turn up on roads, pellets will be strategically placed to lure them away. White said none of the property owners at the September meeting wanted to host a feeding site; they fear that the elk might return the next winter.

Some of the property owners did agree to store supplemental feed that can be tapped if the worst-case scenario comes to pass.

Fish and Game's action plan includes notifying the Idaho Transportation Department so it can use electronic message boards to warn motorists about deer and elk on the road.

The agency also is working with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials to close parts of the Danskins to winter recreation from Jan. 1 to April 15. That would aid energy-sapped deer and elk trying to survive the winter.

"We're looking at trying to give them space," White said. "Even if there's no forage, they can hunker down."

BLM and Forest Service already are reseeding burned areas with native grasses and shrubs, said Scott Bodle, a wildlife biologist in the Mountain Home Ranger District for the Boise National Forest. The Forest Service plans to seed about 15,000 acres, primarily in the Danskins.

THOUSANDS OF DEER, ELK COULD BE AFFECTED

The vast mountainous area north and east of Boise is part of Fish and Game's 2,444-square-mile Management Unit 39. It's roughly bounded by Banner Ridge on the north, Interstate 84 on the south, Idaho 55 on the west and Atlanta on the east.

According to 2010-11 counts, Unit 39 has about 23,000 mule deer and 7,275 elk. An area burned by the huge Elk Complex and Pony Complex wildfires typically is winter range for about 6,000 deer and 1,500 elk.

So far this year, biologists have not seen deer and elk moving into their winter ranges. They aren't sure why.

Deer and elk tend to feed in separate places. Elk can winter on the prairie, while deer prefer foothills. In mild winters, some deer will stay in the mountains. Kemner estimated that about half the mule deer stayed in the mountains the past couple of winters.

Mule deer prefer to return to a place year after year - a behavior biologists call "high site fidelity." Elk aren't as predictable.

"They are wanderers," said White. "They may say, 'Hey, we'll go see what's next door.' "

Mule deer could be in better shape than last year, because there was more rain and more grass this fall.

"That fall moisture is more important than anything to create the green-up," Kemner said.

Forage in the area burned by the 2012 Trinity Fire is abundant, attracting large numbers of deer and elk. Biologists believe they are taking advantage of all that food before heading down to their winter range.

MORE MONITORING THIS YEAR

State biologists plan to pay closer attention to deer and elk this year with radio collars that let them study animal movements and survival rates.

A high percentage of mule deer have twins. Monitoring the weight of fawns, and the survival rates of does and fawns, is a good way to gauge the health of the herd. Fish and Game has weighed fawns in Unit 39 for about a decade.

Fawn survival was about 70 percent in winter 2012-13, high compared to other parts of the state. In 2011-12 - with an early snow that stayed all winter - just 30 percent survived.

"Deer are susceptible to bad weather - long periods of heavy snow," Kemner said. Spring is also critical: Long wet periods can drain their energy.

The mule deer doe survival rate across the state is more than 90 percent. That helps maintain a stable herd.

DON'T FEED THE DEER

Idahoans don't like to see animals starve in winter. Some people put out food, but Fish and Game officials discourage that. Even official group-feeding sites are trouble, which is why they're set up only in extreme circumstances.

They create an opportunity for disease to spread rapidly, and also make animals more susceptible to predators. The feed also can cause digestive issues, because microbes in their guts change with the season and their diets. Their guts can't always handle the rich alfalfa, which causes potentially fatal bloat.

"Deer are going to starve on a diet of alfalfa in January or February," White said.

In Southeast Idaho, specially formulated feed is put out in select sites to keep the animals off the highway and to assuage public concern about the starving deer, White said.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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