Idaho Fish and Game expects to spend $650,000 to feed big-game animals this winter — nearly double the largest expenditure on record.
The previous high was $387,000 in 2008. Records aren’t readily available for any year before 2003. The budget for this winter was $229,000.
“Across the southern tier of the state, we are experiencing a winter that we haven’t experienced in about 20 years,” said Ed Schriever, the deputy director for operations.
Emergency feeding is conducted to help certain animals survive the winter, particularly mule deer. The heavy snows have restricted access to the food they normally would eat. Feeding also is used to direct big game away from agricultural operations, highways and populated areas, where they can cause damage or become a hazard.
Fish and Game has set up about 110 feeding locations across southern Idaho with more on the way. Feeding hasn’t been necessary in the northern half of the state this winter.
Four criteria are used to determine if emergency feeding is necessary: potential damage to private property, public safety, access to natural foraging and ecological disturbance to winter range, such as a fire.
The feeding operation began before snow fell this winter because of fire damage to the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area in East Idaho. Preparations to feed there began in September and blew through the feed budget for the entire winter. That area gets 4,000 elk and 4,000 mule deer in the winter.
“We knew if we didn’t feed, (the animals) would end up in places where they would be in trouble, causing depredations that would have been disastrous,” Schriever said.
Fish and Game pays for winter feeding through a $0.75 fee included in all deer, elk and pronghorn tags sold. The department requested Legislature approval to access $400,000 in that account to supplement the budgeted amount for feed. That request has been approved and forwarded to the governor’s office, department officials said.
The feeding effort is reaching more than 10,000 deer, nearly 10,000 elk and about 100 pronghorn statewide. That represents less than 2 percent of the state’s deer and less than 10 percent of the elk.
“It’s a major undertaking, very expensive, but these are wild animals and they’re adjusted to feed under normal conditions with the naturally available forage,” said Jon Rachael, the state big game manager. “The reality is we really are only reaching a very small percentage of the population. Hopefully that does those animals some good but the impact is really isolated to those that can take advantage of it.”
Fish and Game has monitored mule deer closely since 1989 and determined that the best indicator of winter survival is body condition entering the winter. The deer entered this winter mostly in average to slightly less than average condition, Rachael said.
Fish and Game won’t estimate winter losses until late February or March but expects to cut back on antlerless deer tags this year.
“We’re anticipating we’re going to lose a significant number of our fawns,” Rachael said.
The deer population has bounced back from a difficult winter of 2010-11, he said.
“We have had deer populations rebound to the point where we are currently experiencing deer and probably elk numbers at the highest level in a couple of decades,” Rachael said. “Although there may be a setback due to winter conditions, I do not expect it to be devastating.”
While deer feeding is designed to help the animals survive, most elk feeding is intended to prevent private property damage and keep the large animals away from roads.
“Elk are big animals,” Schriever said. “They bring a lot of resources into the winter with them. Elk will find things to eat to get through the winter.”
Fish and Game has closed many of its wildlife management areas to the public to protect wildlife and encourage the animals to stay in those areas. Those closures include the Boise River Wildlife Management Area segment that borders Harris Ranch and other neighborhoods in East Boise.
So far, feeding hasn’t been needed on the BRWMA.
“We’re still monitoring that situation,” Rachael said. “We had some significant portions of that winter range impacted by fire. The deer seem to be spread out, although we are getting more down in town. If you look up on the hillside in the last week or two, there’s bare ground. If you look closely, there’s green grass, and quite a bit of it. We’re probably in pretty good shape there.”
The closest feeding clusters to Boise are in the Weiser area, primarily to keep elk off agricultural land, and the Garden Valley area, primarily to help deer survive the winter.
If people want to help the feeding effort, they can volunteer through regional offices to assist with the work or make donations toward feed purchases. They shouldn’t feed animals themselves, Fish and Game says.
“In one instance that is happening right now, we’ve got some folks throwing alfalfa to deer,” Schriever said. “Alfalfa in general is too hot for deer and can cause more significant problems than letting those deer rummage for natural forage. Those are great intentions but sometimes that misses the mark.”
Fish and Game is using hay in Tex Creek but for much of the feeding effort utilizes pellets formulated by veterinarians.
Fish and Game is monitoring about 1,700 radio-collared deer and elk to help determine the health of the herds. Mule deer are of the most concern because of the snowpack in southern Idaho and persistent low temperatures. The lack of natural forage and the stress of human interaction can tax their fat reserves.
Mule deer fawns are at the most risk but get the least benefit from feeding operations because they struggle to compete for feed, Fish and Game says. Their survival is primarily dependent upon how much weight they gain before winter.
Elk are less susceptible to winter kill.
Fish and Game compensates private land owners for losses caused by wintering wildlife. Last year, Fish and Game paid to build about 100 enclosures to protect haystacks. The department also distributed thousands of panels and rolls of temporary fencing to land owners to protect haystacks.