Would you skip hiking or walking your dog in the Boise Foothills if it meant saving a deer that might otherwise succumb to starvation? That’s not a rhetorical question this winter as thousands of deer and elk return to the Boise River Wildlife Management Area and find that fire consumed 4,300 acres of critical winter habitat.
Wildfires last summer present a tricky situation for Idaho Fish and Game, which manages the 47,000-acre WMA near Lucky Peak Lake.
The WMA makes it possible for one of the state’s largest mule deer herds to thrive near Idaho’s largest population center. Depending on the year, 5,000 to 8,000 mule deer and up to 1,800 elk use the WMA to escape snow as they migrate from as far away as the Sawtooth Mountains. Although they spend a small portion of their year on the WMA, it can be a life saver.
“These animals have a certain amount of body fat when they come onto the WMA. That’s all they have to live on during winter,” said Krista Biorn, who manages the area. “Even if the winter is mild, they can still have a hard time.”
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That’s why it’s important for people to give animals wintering in the Foothills a break, even if it means getting in the car and driving someplace else for a hike, mountain bike ride, or dog walk; especially the dog walk, because deer and elk see dogs as predators.
Fish and Game does not close the WMA to the public during winter, but it closes access roads to motorized vehicles and requires dogs to be leashed unless in the act of hunting (there’s limited upland bird hunting opportunities on portions of the WMA, and one controlled archery deer hunt that lasts through Dec. 16).
But WMA managers ask the public to consider their actions in regard to the welfare of wintering wildlife. If people have the option of recreating where it won’t disturb wildlife, that increases the chances of a deer or elk surviving its first winter.
In the meantime, Fish and Game personnel, along with a crew of volunteers, are working to revive habitat burned by the fires. Earlier this fall, crews planted 6,200 bitterbrush and sagebrush seedlings, and 75 large containers of willows.
They’ve also returned to water those young plants to help them get over the critical early stages of their growth, and in early December, they will be collecting sagebrush seed for later replanting.
Fish and Game is also working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore vegetation on the upper slopes of the WMA to further help deer and elk as the snow melts and they begin their transition to summer range.
“Our WMAs are to benefit wildlife, and if something affects that, we’re going to spend money to fix it,” Biorn said. “I think we can get these landscapes back quicker than if we just leave them alone.”
Roger Phillips is a public information specialist at Idaho Fish and Game and former Statesman outdoors writer.