Critters in Eastern Washington are being tested by a cold, snowy and now lingering winter, with southern portions seeing some of the worst conditions in 20 years, but those in the north also likely to see to more winterkill.
With repeated snowstorms, weeks of frigid temperatures, thaws, freezing rain and more bad weather for several months now, the toll’s adding up on deer and elk and there’s still several more weeks of winter to go.
“The most severe since 1996-97,” says Jeff “Bernie” Bernatowicz, a WDFW wildlife biologist based in Yakima. “Deep, persistent snow with two layers of crust.”
Crust makes it very difficult for ungulates to feed on anything besides shrubs or navigate the countryside as their hooves bust through the icy shell, while predators can run along on top of it.
Several elk and at least three bighorn rams have died in Bernatowicz’s district, and he worries a worse die-off may be coming.
In the Blue Mountains, where a heavy, wet snowstorm hit in early February, a desperate herd of elk ate up a stack of hay that had been put up in a shed alongside Cougar Creek Road decades ago.
“The owner of the shed told me the hay was at least 30 years old, probably older,” said Bob Dice, who manages state wildlife areas in this corner of the state.
A YouTube video shot around that same time showed three deer riding an ice flow down the Grande Ronde River near Troy, likely to their doom.
WDFW closed the 4-O and Grouse Flats Units of the Chief Joseph Wildlife Area earlier this month to public entry until April to limit human disturbance of the herds.
Dice says that conditions have since improved, but another round of winter weather loomed this week that weakened animals will have to cope with.
“We are getting reports of observations of mature bulls exhibiting signs of starvation such as hip bones showing and poor body condition. They still have a long road to recovery,” Dice says.
A gif put together by the National Weather Service’s Spokane office shows the extent and duration of snow cover across Washington since Dec. 1.
— NWS Spokane (@NWSSpokane) February 22, 2017
Even as it appears more green is beginning to show in Eastern Washington in the gif, in a cruel blow, a “big pulse” of deaths is likely to occur just as the winter range actually begins to green-up as spring arrives.
“My best guess is that during conditions like this year and last, elk and deer just turn down metabolism and coast. They only have what is above snow, which is woody browse. They hit ‘E’ on the tank,” Bernatowicz says. “At green-up, the forage is mostly water at first. Energy comes from cell walls, which are pretty thin on fast-growing plants. Deer and elk don’t digest plant material; microorganisms do the work. Those microorganisms are specific to the plant matter. This is why if you suddenly give deer alfalfa hay when they’ve been eating woody browse, they die. The hay just sits there as deer don’t have the right microorganisms to break it down at first. Same goes for woody browse to new growth. The new growth will pass through as it’s mostly water, but the combination of little energy in the food and the wrong microorganism the first week or so equals almost no Kcal gained. The animals go from ‘E’ to dead.”
While the Yakima and Kittitas County feeding sites are seeing high use by elk — as many as 1,650 at Cowiche, 1,086 at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area headquarters station, 961 at Mellotte, according to WDFW’s Feb. 6 weekly Wildlife Program report — Bernatowicz believes the annual winter herd count could end up being sharply lower than at this same time last year, and the lowest it’s been since surveys began in 1999.
Calf recruitment appears to be lagging too. An early February tally of 3,000 elk in the northern herd found 25 calves per 100 cows, where the ratio is “rarely” less than 30:100, according to WDFW.
The agency also reports an “unusual” number of spotted and stunted calves in the feeding grounds.
“In theory, it goes back to fall 2015,” Bernatowicz says. “When cows come into estrus is dependent on body fat. 2015 was a hot, dry summer and early fall. A fair number of cows probably didn’t even cycle during the normal season. In most parts of elk range, the bulls segregate after the normal rut and hormone levels drop. Thus, no breeding in winter. In the Yakima herd we have feed sites and large concentrations of elk. Bulls are with cows constantly, so are still ready to breed. Some cows gain body fat on feed sites, or at green-up and come into estrus. Last winter there was a fair amount of breeding taking place on feed sites. I’m guessing the same took place in some of the other winter concentrations. Thus, small and spotted calves. We have not seen the same this winter.”
There have been reports of wolves and cougars in unusual places, even a purported sighting of a wolverine by a landowner east of Yakima, and ranchers have had issues with elk getting into more recently cut haystacks and challenging cattle for feed.
There’s also been a “surprising amount” of people getting out onto the winter range, sometimes with potentially negative effects to the landscape where UTVs have gone offroad and dug ruts that will channelize runoff. Bernatowicz says that parts of the winter range which aren’t closed to public access such as the feeding sites don’t have any elk because of higher uses, but “then you have 800 in one group hanging out above shooting ranges.”
“Why shooting ranges? Because no one hikes or rides through,” he says.
In the Eastside’s opposite corner, wildlife biologist Dana Base says this winter will likely be marked down as “severe” on a model WDFW uses.
That was driven by weeks of below-zero temperatures in December and January.
“There have been a few other severe winters in the last 20 years that I’ve worked in Northeast Washington, but none quite like this one has been,” Base says.
In the next district to his west, Okanogan, conditions have lingered.
“For a while it looked like this would be a moderately easy winter for deer in the Okanogan, but that started to change in late January,” says Scott Fitkin in the Methow Valley. “And although I’m not getting reports a lot of reports of winter kill, I’m now guessing we’ll have higher than average fawn mortality this winter. Won’t really know until spring surveys are complete sometime in April.”
We’ll be checking back with the bios on the results of their surveys to determine this winter’s effect on Eastern Washington’s critters.