This winter’s cold temperatures and deep snow at low elevations has prompted Idaho Fish and Game to implement emergency big game feeding at nearly 110 locations across southern and eastern Idaho. Winter conditions in the Panhandle, Clearwater and Salmon areas are closer to normal so emergency feeding is not necessary there, but animals and weather conditions continue to be monitored to see if more feeding is needed.
"Winter feeding is a big deal for us right now," said Fish and Game Deputy Director Ed Schriever. "This is a winter like we haven't experienced in about 20 years in southern Idaho."
Wildlife managers estimate the department is feeding about 10,000 mule deer, nearly 10,000 elk and about 100 pronghorn at various feeding sites throughout the state. F&G is expecting to spend $650,000 to feed big game this winter. The department spent $387,000 in 2008, which as the last big year for winter feeding.
Emergency feeding has several goals, including helping some animals get through winter, particularly mule deer, and keeping wildlife away from agriculture operations, highways and populated areas where they can be hazards or nuisances. Fish and Game has in several cases successfully herded large elk herds away from agricultural lands and highways into suitable winter range.
Fish and Game is currently monitoring nearly 1,700 radio-collared deer and elk, including adults, calves and fawns. Game managers have real-time data on the survival of those animals, which provides valuable information about the larger populations.
Wildlife managers expect there will be losses due to winter kill this year and likely more than in recent years, partly because the last four winters have been relatively mild. Managers are monitoring herds, but much of the mortality occurs in late winter and into early spring.
"We are anticipating experiencing some winter mortality despite feeding," State Game Manager Jon Rachael said. "We do not have a prediction at this stage how many deer we expect to lose this winter."
Wildlife managers are most concerned about mule deer herds because southern Idaho has record accumulations of snow at low elevations and persistent cold temperatures where deer winter. Deep, crusty snow and frigid temperatures makes it difficult for deer to feed on natural forage and also taxes their limited fat reserves.
Mule deer fawns have the most difficulty surviving winter because they’re the smallest animals in the herd and carry the least amount of fat. The primary determinate of winter survival is fawn weight coming into winter. Winter feeding has a very limited effect on fawn survival, and being the smallest, they often have difficulty competing for feed.
Even in severe winters, statewide doe survival typically exceeds 90 percent, however, some herds may have more animals succumb to winter kill. Older, post-breeding age does are the adults most likely to die during winter, but the majority of breeding does are expected to survive.
Elk are hardier than deer and less prone to winter kill, however, we are feeding them in many locations to keep large herds away from private lands, particularly agriculture lands, and also away from highways.
Fish and Game is working with private land owners to help mitigate and compensate for losses from wintering wildlife. In 2016, Fish and Game paid to construct about 100 enclosures to protect haystacks from big game. Those efforts appear to be paying off. The department has also distributed thousands of panels and rolls of temporary fencing to land owners to keep deer, elk and antelope out of hay stacks.
For more information, go to our winter feeding page, which includes regional updates.
Photo credits: Idaho Fish and Game
Top: Idaho Fish and Game is feeding big game animals at nearly 110 sites this winter and expects to spend about $650,000 on the effort.
Middle: Mule deer herd rests in the snow near Weiser. One of mule deers' main survival strategies is conserving energy during winter.
Bottom: Idaho Fish and Game tries to prevent big game from taking up residence in agriculture operations, but when it happens, landowners can receive compensation for damage done by wildlife.