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Crust-covered snow spells deadly conditions for wildlife

The cupboard seems mostly bare for this white-tailed deer as she browses on buds and twigs in the deep snow along the foothills of Mount Spokane. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
The cupboard seems mostly bare for this white-tailed deer as she browses on buds and twigs in the deep snow along the foothills of Mount Spokane. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)

The wind-packed or sun-crusted snow blanketing much of the region this week delivers one of the most difficult survival tests for wintering birds and a wildlife.

Crusty snow with mild temperatures is more deadly than powdery snow and frigid cold.

People can’t change the snow conditions, but they can help deer and elk by leaving them be.

Don’t go snowshoeing where deer are holed up. Stay off shed-antler areas and rein in loose running dogs to give wild critters a break.

It’s against Washington law to let dogs chase wildlife, Fish and Wildlife police say. If a dog is caught chasing deer, the owner is liable. In extreme cases, officers have been authorized to shoot deer-chasing dogs.

Ground-feeding birds such as pheasants have trouble scratching through the hard-surfaced snow to reach grains and other foods. Even deer find it hard in some areas to scrape the snow with their hooves to expose food.

I saw coyotes having trouble walking through open fields two weeks ago as their feet post-holed through the snow every few steps. The crust certainly made it more difficult for them to hunt for mice.

But where the crust has become hard enough to hold the coyotes on top, they have a major advantage over deer. When conditions allow a predator to stay on top of the snow while the larger prey breaks through, the prey are in big trouble.

Deer are concentrated in areas where sheltering trees have kept the snow powdery or on slopes or ridges where wind and sun have exposed the ground. That leaves vast expanses of potential foraging areas off-limits, sealed under a barrier of snow.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife received a report last week of loose dogs chasing deer in Spokane County. Wonderful house pets can whip up their chase instincts when they come across stressed wildlife, especially when two or more dogs get together to form an informal pack.

In current conditions, a couple of dogs would have a good chance of catching a deer, but a chase may be deadly in itself. Deer and elk are fueling their furnaces largely with fat reserves to get through winter. Unnecessary exertion can leave winter-weary critters exhausted and with a greater chance of becoming winterkill, wildlife biologists say.

“In the recent case of dogs chasing deer, the situation was compounded by a person who was feeding deer and concentrating them in an area,” said Madonna Luers, department spokeswoman in Spokane. “Our staff doesn’t recommend winter feeding for big game. It just creates more problems.”

Both Idaho and Washington wildlife agencies are using media this week to ask the public to refrain from feeding wildlife.

In these cold and snowy conditions, feeding not the best way to help the deer and elk, they say. The animals will eat foods including grains and fruits but their digestive systems aren’t tuned up to process them efficiently in winter.

In Washington, elk are fed at the Oak Creek Wildlife Area as a last resort. Many miles of fencing has been installed in that area to keep the elk out of vineyards and orchards that occupy their normal winter range.

Agency officials say they’d rather not feed big game, but the alternative in that area would be to drastically reduce the number of elk.

“We feed pelleted hay and hay and start early so the animals get used to the forage,” Luers explained. “Lots of people we hear from think about feeding NOW, in mid to late winter – too late for animals to adjust to the diet.

“The best thing most of us can do is keep the dogs inside and leave the critters alone until conditions ease up.”

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