Drought Destroys Big Game Winter Range

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In southeastern Utah, the continuing drought has had catastrophic impacts on deer and elk winter range. To date, more than 27,000 acres of critical sagebrush-grassland areas have suffered severe mortality, 126,000 acres have been damaged significantly and another 16,000 acres have been lightly damaged.

Sagebrush is one of the most important browse species for deer, elk and pronghorn antelope during winter months. Sagebrush retains a higher protein content and nutritional value than many other browse species. When heavy snow drives animals from higher elevations, the presence and abundance of sagebrush can make the difference between life and death, particularly for deer.

Prolonged drought, compounded by an invasion of army cutworms in some areas of southeastern Utah and heavy utilization by big game, has severely affected many sagebrush communities. The consequences are alarming. If southeastern Utah incurs a heavy, prolonged snowfall this winter, lower elevation ranges won't be able to sustain the number of animals they could have otherwise. The loss of big game animals could be substantial.

Land and wildlife managers face a limited number of choices when it comes to averting a potential crisis. Restoring these habitats through seeding projects is obviously a top priority, but it will take years to make a notable difference. Large scale feeding of big game is extremely expensive and could be detrimental to the herd. Artificial feeding brings animals into close association, which facilitates the transmission of parasites and infectious diseases.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been found in southeastern Utah. This contagious disease is 100 percent fatal to deer and elk. If a single animal at a feeding site were infected with CWD or any other communicable disease, transmission to other animals using the site could easily occur. Even without CWD, in their weakened condition big game animals would quickly fall victim to a variety of diseases.

If southeastern Utah continues to have mild, dry winters, range conditions will steadily decline. As years go by, these ranges may become incapable of sustaining even small numbers of animals, causing gradually increasing rates of winter mortality.

Some groups have suggested that the Division of Wildlife Resources cut wildlife herds by as much as 50 percent by significantly increasing the number of deer and elk hunting permits available. Biologists contend that elk herds have already been cut dramatically by antlerless hunts. Years of drought have slashed deer fawn reproduction and recruitment. Deer herds are already on a downhill slide.

The DWR is monitoring the situation closely. Restoration of critical sagebrush areas is a top priority. Habitat managers and biologists will continue to mechanically treat and seed critical big game winter ranges to assure an abundance of seed and seedlings when the drought ends. Ultimately, it will be up to Mother Nature to provide the water to accomplish the job of rangeland rehabilitation.