Deer have always wintered in the junipers that flank the massive sand dunes outside of St. Anthony.
Just as they have always wintered there, a certain number have always fallen victim to the vagaries of winter. But the past few mild winters have meant less mortality, resulting in more than 1,200 mule deer and a greater potential for a large die-off with what was once considered a normal winter.
To attempt to help reduce the number of deaths, Idaho Fish and Game is working with volunteers to feed the larger concentrations of animals north of the dunes.
Most of the deer are within the boundaries of the Egin-Hamer Winter Closure Area, established more than a decade ago to help protect wintering wildlife.
In addition to mule deer, large numbers of elk and even moose winter in the area. The area is closed from the start of January until the start of May to all human entry.
Fish and Game, as part of its administrative responsibilities, entered the area and on February 19, started feeding with a special pellet supplement.
Feeding will continue until enough greenup occurs that deer can move back to natural forage. The pellets initially being fed are made from sugar beet pulp.
Starting February 23, a special larger deer pellet made with alfalfa and grains and minerals will be mixed with the smaller beet pulp pellets to help the deer transition from their natural diet to a manmade one. By the following week the deer will be fed the deer pellets exclusively.
The commitment to feed the deer is no small undertaking, and Fish and Game couldn't do it on its own. Volunteers have been scheduled to help with a majority of the feeding and groups such as the Mule Deer Foundation will be out in force to help.
"We've got 32 tons of pellets on hand to feed the St. Anthony deer herd," said Russ Knight, Upper Snake Region landowner sportsman coordinator.
While biologists have observed that the pellets appear to be helping to improve the condition of the animals, they caution that some mortality will still occur.
"We're trying to do what we can, but there is no way we can feed them all, and how the rest of winter plays out will make the real difference," Knight said.
Current snow conditions on the winter range seem to be improving in favor of the deer, but other factors such as human disturbance could come into play.
"The deer are becoming used to our slow moving feeding operations, but if people on snow machines illegally enter the area it could force the animals to scatter and waste energy," said Gregg Losinski, Upper Snake Region conservation educator.
Fish and Game, the Bureau of Land Management and the Fremont County Sheriff's office will continue to patrol the closure area to help ensure the security of the wintering animals. Violators could be subject county, state, or even federal charges.
"It is important that the public understand that we are taking a scientific approach to feeding these animals and that the public should not attempt to feed big game on their own," Upper Snake Regional Supervisor Steve Schmidt said.
Individuals interested in helping with designated feeding operations should contact the Fish and Game in Idaho Falls at 208-525-7290.