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Feeding plan helps save deer hit hard by extremely cold winter months

Posted: Thursday, April 04, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A dry February didn't do much for Utah's deer hit hard by cold.

A significant number will die in the northern regions before spring green-up. Hundreds, possibly thousands, have already succumbed to cold and starvation; most were fawns. More deer are certain to die, some with their bellies filled with succulent grasses too late.

A feeding program initiated by sportsmen has saved hundreds of deer. Too many deer, however, were unable to reach feeding sites.

But the program may have been widespread enough to maintain a base population of deer in Cache and Rich counties.

''We won't have to start from near zero like we did in the winter of 1992-93,'' reported Dennis Austin, wildlife biologist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in the Cache unit.

''But, sportsmen will not see as many deer this year. We've lost between 30 and 50 percent of the total deer herd. We didn't lose many elk and only a few moose, but the deer were hit pretty hard.''

In early January, sportsmen stepped forward and volunteered to run the feeding program if the DWR would supply food. Thus far supplying the 14 feeding sites in Cache County and four in Rich County has cost upward of $15,000. Sportsmen have put in more than 2,500 hours hauling and dispersing the food, consisting of alfalfa, commercial deer pellets and corn.

''What we've been buying,'' he added, ''is second- and third-crop alfalfa, which is more leafy and higher in protein.''

Approximately 600 deer have been feeding in Rich County and between 1,500 and 3,000 in Cache.

Preliminary reports show the program is working. At non-feeding sites in Cache County, deer counts are running about eight fawns per 100 does. At the feeding sites, counts are running about 60 fawns per 100 does. In Rich County, counts at non-feeding sites are about 26 fawns per 100 does, and at feeding sites it's about 45 fawns per 100 does.

Biologists have also made some significant discoveries this winter.

''We've learned there are not many areas of winter range with microclimates warm enough to hold deer in extremely cold temperatures,'' Austin said. ''We had winter range with browse this year, but when the cold hit, the deer moved. In some cases they moved to areas with no food. Even with deep snow the deer stayed, but when the cold hit they moved.''

Preferred areas were lower-elevation ranges with mature Utah juniper trees.

''And maybe this is something we need to look at for 20 or 30 years down the road. That is, planting junipers on winter range with browse,'' he said. Browse is a staple for deer in the winter.

Biologists also found that the high-protein diet served up was sufficient to carry the deer through the colder periods, even when they were not in those areas with a warmer microclimate.

Austin said other animals also suffered from the cold temperatures this winter.

Some species of birds, such as barn owls, pheasants and grouse, died from the cold. Snowshoe hares appear to have made it through with few losses, but squirrel numbers are down in some northern areas.

''It's important people know these are preliminary figures,'' says Austin. ''These figures may change. We will be doing a comprehensive study and hope to have it finished before summer.

''But one thing is certain, we couldn't have done the feeding without the sportsmen. (The Division of Wildlife Resources) didn't have the manpower, especially not during the Olympics. I think it's important, too, to point out that for the most part, people have been pretty tolerant of wildlife this winter, given the circumstances, and that's helped.''

The feeding will continue until the new grasses have grown about half an inch. Even then, deer that are in poor condition at that point, even though their bellies may be full of the new growth, will not be able to adjust and will die from starvation.

It appears at this point that the northern areas of the state will suffer the greatest losses. And, as in the past, it will take several good years to get the herds back to where they were at the start of this winter.

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