Press Release

Sharing the Wood River Valley with wintering big game

Late winter is a critical time for survival

While days are getting longer and temperatures are gradually warming, the Wood River Valley likely still has some cold and snowy days ahead, which will be some of the toughest for wintering big game animals.

In late winter, wildlife begins to draw upon the last of the fat reserves they built up during summer and fall. Conserving the remaining reserves becomes critical, and disturbances can mean the difference between an animal surviving winter, or dying before spring green up. Among the potential stressors for wintering wildlife is human interactions.

Elk, mule deer and moose have wintered in the Wood River Valley since long before people occupied the area. It is people’s responsibility to be mindful of wildlife and do their part to help them survive into spring by following these tips for coexisting with wintering wildlife:

  • Do not let your dog chase wildlife. If your dog is unresponsive to voice commands, keep them on a leash. An unattended dog can harass wildlife that have very little energy left to escape. Dogs are fully capable of killing weaker animals, especially fawns and calves.
  • Dogs allowed to roam, especially from dusk to dawn, run the risk of encountering predators. As prey animals concentrate in town and around homes, predators have no choice but to follow them, and when they do, they occasionally discover that a dog is an easier target than a fully-grown elk.
  • If you are out walking and come across an individual or group of animals, do not approach them. Change your route to give them space and prevent them from having to flee through deep snow.
  • Animals are going to use paths of least resistance. These include plowed roadways, driveways, walkways, under the eaves of houses and decks or patios. Be observant and mindful of this and give animals the right-of-way to help them conserve energy, whenever possible.
  • you have window wells, erect a barrier around them (sawhorses, wire, spare firewood) anything to discourage animals from getting too close and falling in. Please be aware that if you do construct a barrier, window wells must still allow egress from the building for human safety. Fish and Game have had a couple of cases of elk and moose in window wells this year, and it is unpleasant for the homeowner and potentially deadly for the animal.
  • As animals strive to conserve energy, you may see them lying down all day. This is normal behavior at this time of year, and does not necessarily mean that the animal is sick or wounded. If there are obvious signs of injury, or if the animal does not move after 24 hours, call the Idaho Fish and Game regional office.
  • If wildlife are wintering around your home, inventory your property and remove any introduced ornamental yew that might be growing at your residence. At the very least, wrap the plants with burlap to prevent access by big game animals until animals have migrated out of the area. Ornamental yews are toxic to a variety of animals, and yew consumption is suspected as the cause of mortality for a number of elk in the Wood River Valley in February. For more information on ornamental yew and risks to wildlife, visit https://idfg.idaho.gov/conservation/yew/paper

No winter feeding emergency for big game

The Magic Valley Winter Feeding Advisory Committee (WFAC) and Idaho Fish and Game have been carefully monitoring weather conditions in the Wood River Valley and its effects on wildlife, and at this point, no widespread emergency winter feeding has been declared in the area. There are a select number of feeding sites in the Wood River Valley, which were set up to reduce conflicts with agriculture. Here is more information on winter feeding throughout the state.

During the last week in February, Fish and Game staff conducted a ground survey to determine where elk and deer are located, and observed elk and deer body conditions. Craig White, Fish and Game supervisor for the Magic Valley Region, said that conditions of most adult elk and deer appeared to be good, and that they are fairly well dispersed across their winter ranges. He added that the young animals of the year are more stressed, which is typical.

“The end of February dumped a lot of precipitation in an unusual pattern,” White said. “Prior to that pattern, however, it had been a relatively mild winter for deer and elk.”

Fish and Game and the Magic Valley’s advisory committee will continue monitoring the conditions in the Wood River Valley and take action if needed, but officials are optimistic wide-spread emergency winter feeding won’t be necessary.

Why not feed?

There are a number of reasons Fish and Game does not start widespread feeding unless certain emergency criteria are met.

First, winter conditions do not typically create a “lack of feed” issue for game as much as a “fat burning” issue. Ongoing research shows that if animals, especially fawns and calves, enter winter with a sufficient amount of fat, they can survive the winter months with little additional feed – so long as they have access to critical winter range that provides refuge from disturbance, cold temperatures and deep snow.

Second, winter big game feeding can have negative impacts. When animals congregate at feed sites in large numbers, the transmission of diseases is enhanced. Concentrated animals also aggressively compete for feed, and young and weak animals that need it most often lose out to fitter adults.

Animals concentrated at feeding sites can also attract predators because they are able to hunt in one specific area that has consistent prey.

There can also be long-term consequences for natural forage in the immediate vicinity of a feed site if it becomes overused and damaged, and it may not recover, especially if the same feed site is used for wildlife feeding year after year.

Feed sites can short stop animals and discourage them from following their traditional migratory routes. Animals will become accustomed to the feed sites and begin looking for them year after year rather than return to their traditional native winter range.

While residents might be tempted to feed wintering big game animals themselves, Fish and Game does not advise it. Unauthorized winter feeding or baiting efforts by the public should not be conducted because it can create more problems than it solves.

At this time of year, some animals are beginning to experience malnutrition, and if they are presented with overly abundant or rich foods, they can also become sick.

While some residents in an area support feeding wildlife, others do not, and animals that concentrate in certain areas can quickly get into trouble.It is more beneficial to wildlife to give them space and allow them to occupy the areas they have spent most of the winter in already.

If you have any concerns about wintering big game animals in the Magic Valley Region, issues with wildlife depredations, or questions about winter feeding, contact the regional Fish and Game office in Jerome at (208) 324-4359.

Wintering elk, Magic Valley
Creative Commons Licence
Photo by John Guthrie/Idaho Fish and Game