Big game animals are congregating at low elevations, including near towns and homes after December and January snowstorms and frigid temperatures blanketed much of Idaho.
Some people are concerned about animals surviving through winter, but so far, Fish and Game has only started emergency feeding in Eastern Idaho where a wildfire last summer burned much of the available forage. Fish and Game is also feeding in the Wood River Valley to keep elk away from the highway and to reduce damage to agriculture operations.
Fish and Game officials share the public’s concern about the well being of deer and elk populations during rough winters.
“We are watching snow conditions closely and our regional wildlife program staff are in close communication with their regional citizen winter feeding advisory committees to assess where and when it is appropriate to initiate feeding operations,” said Jon Rachael, state wildlife game manager.
Winter can be tough on big game animals, and people can help them by leaving them alone. Animals have a limited amount of fat reserves, and when those are gone, animals are more susceptible to disease, predation and starvation.
Fish and Game has winter feeding guidelines to separate normal big game mortality from extreme mortality brought on by unusually harsh winters. To start winter feeding, Fish and Game declares an emergency based on environmental and biological conditions while working in consultation with regional winter feeding advisory committees.
“We have feed pellets stored at locations around the state where we most commonly feed, and we are ready to initiate feeding operations if that determination is made, and we are prepared to order additional feed and supplies if necessary,” Rachael said.
Advisory committees provide timely information to regional Fish and Game supervisors so each can decide if emergency winter conditions exist. Advisory committees and Fish and Game officials monitor snow depth, temperatures and quality of forage on winter range.
Prolonged extreme weather, such as five consecutive days when temperatures remain below zero degrees, snow depths deeper than 18 inches on south facing slopes, and other conditions, can trigger emergency feeding.
Fish and Game has a long-standing policy to manage big-game herds at levels that natural habitat can support, and herds have grown in recent years thanks to mild-to-moderate winters.
"We try our best to manage wildlife populations at a level that can be supported by natural habitat without the need for supplemental feeding under normal conditions," Rachael said. "But under severe conditions when natural forage is unavailable because of snow depths, or impacts from wildfire, and it appears significant portions of a herd may succumb, we are prepared to provide some extra help to prevent large losses."
Even if long-term winter conditions turn out to be normal in terms of average temperatures and snowfall, some animals still won’t make it. On average, about 50 percent of fawns die during winter, and about a third of the elk calves. Adult survival for deer and elk is typically more than 90 percent. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the hardiest, fittest animals survive and pass their genes to the next generation.
"We realize we cannot help every deer and elk through a tough winter, and not all animals will benefit from supplemental feeding, but we do our best to provide food to attempt to prevent major losses," Rachael said.
Fish and Game officials also closely monitor more than 900 deer and elk wearing radio collars across the state, and will respond based on information passed along daily from the radio collars.
If winter conditions worsen dramatically and emergency criteria are met, Fish and Game is prepared to respond quickly to help struggling big game.
“Monitoring 900 or more deer and elk will not only provide a daily update on welfare of the herds, but it also gives us scientific information on survival through the entire winter,” F&G's deer and elk coordinator Craig White said. “Especially in places where there are no people to provide information about the animals.”
More information can be found on our winter big game feeding page.