The Boise River Wildlife Management Area in the eastern Boise Foothills remains closed to public access even though most of the snow has melted.
Deer are at their most vulnerable during late winter and early spring, which makes limiting conflict with humans a critical element to their survival, said Krista Biorn, the regional wildlife biologist who manages the Boise River WMA.
The animals are scattered across the WMA this winter searching for food, she said. In years past — and before the Mile Marker 14 fire that burned some high-quality habitat last summer — the animals were in larger groups.
“They had to go a lot farther and search a lot harder for food,” Biorn said. “By closing, we allowed those animals to just relax, maintain their energy by sitting on the south-facing slopes and get as much energy out of the forage they could find as possible.”
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Most of the animals that have died this winter have been fawns and older deer, she said. But if the WMA closure were lifted before the animals move back into the mountains, the adults “on the cusp of survival” would be at grave risk, she said.
“Those animals that are on the tipping point — even though they’re eating, their bodies can’t take in as much protein as they normally would later in the season,” she said. “Their bodies kind of shut down so they don’t have to eat as much. ... We lose more animals from the beginning of March to the end of April than we do throughout the whole rest of winter.”
The closure, which affects the Homestead, Cobb, West Highland Valley, East Highland Valley, Lucky Peak and Ridge Road trails on the Ridge to Rivers map, mostly was respected when the hills were covered with snow, Idaho Fish and Game officials say. But since spring-like weather has arrived, hikers and bikers have started ignoring the closure signs.
Violators usually receive a warning the first time. But they can be cited for a misdemeanor of violating a signed closure by any full-time Fish and Game staff member. The fine is $25 to $1,000 at the judge’s discretion. Commonly, the fine is $25 — but the total expense is nearly $200 after court costs, said Charlie Justus, the regional conservation officer for the Southwest Region.
“Spring fever is here,” Justus said. “People want to get out. The problem is we still have a large number of deer and elk that are hanging out low on the wildlife area. The next couple weeks still are critical for the fawns.”
Said Biorn: “We have people climbing over gates. It’s been increasing since last weekend. We’ve been having a lot more incidences. ... We are actively patrolling it.”
Fawns have been hit the hardest by the winter, Biorn said. She expects the deer population to drop this year and bounce back in two to three years as the surviving deer benefit from an ample food supply.
Fish and Game doesn’t have an estimate for when the closure will be lifted. The animals usually arrive on the WMA around Halloween and leave from early April to early May.
“We’re not telling people when the WMA is going to re-open,” Biorn said. “We’re going to let the animals decide that.”
When the closure is lifted, the burn-area closures from the Mile Marker 14 and Table Rock fires will remain in place. The Homestead, Cobb, West Highland Valley and Lucky Peak trails will be available this year. That allows hikers and bikers to ascend from Harris Ranch to Lucky Peak and do the Cobb/West Highland Valley loop. However, the East Highland Valley trail and the Fish and Game trails along Idaho 21 will be closed. Vehicles won’t be allowed to drive to Lucky Peak, at least initially, and it’s still unclear whether the Intermountain Bird Observatory will be able to open for the season, Biorn said. Also, the WMA requires dogs to be on leash at all times.
“If we have people going off trail (in the burned areas) for any reason, they could cause erosion and spread invasive weeds,” Biorn said. “So keeping it closed is going to be really critical. We also did a lot of rehabilitation. We want the landscape to try to heal.”
Volunteer planting on the WMA
Idaho Fish and Game has volunteer planting opportunities available Saturday and March 25 as part of Mile Marker 14 Fire rehab. Volunteers will be planting sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings. Contact Michael Young at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or to sign up.
An additional volunteer opportunity is available April 1 to help with Soda Fire rehab in the Owyhee desert.