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The Game Trail

Critters in winter and the new fishing regs

Another year comes and goes like the wind, Happy New Year to all the River Journal readers! I hope this New Year brings health and happiness to all of you and your families.  Additionally I hope that our critters fare well this winter.

Old Man Winter decided to bring a good amount of white stuff to us early and a cold snap to boot. In late November, I had a chance to sneak away and take my muzzleloader for a hike in hunt Unit 4, in the hopes of finding an elk. I was walking in waist deep snow at the higher elevations, with more snow in the forecast, and I wondered how the elk would fare this year. Today, the day I type this, is the Winter Solstice and the full moon is out beaming across the frozen landscape in the early morning hours. The snow has receded in the days past thanks to a Pineapple Express, a weather system that brings warm wet weather. It has only been 21 days since I packed up the muzzleloader and headed home from the hunt; my how the weather has changed.

So how are the critters going to fare this winter? It’s really a tough question that will only give up its secret when the grass begins to green and the snow goes back to a liquid state. Ironically, the past year’s spring dictates the survivability of elk and deer in winter months. If spring comes early and the forage is lush and green the deer, elk, and moose have a better chance to build fat reserves to make it through the winter. Ever watch a chipmunk in the fall gathering up nuts and cones to make their winter cache?  Or the spastic gathering of evergreen cones from a pine squirrel? Or even better yet the frantic wood gathering by people? There are a few that I see in late summer starting to cut and split their wood. I know that those folks will have an easier time this winter as they are building their reserves early. Then comes late fall and I run into more people cutting wood than hunters, it reminds me of those frenzied squirrels. Okay, enough with the analogies, as my wife often reminds me.

The ungulates have to store and reserve their energy as well. However, they have to store it on their bodies. When they are able to get good nutrition often and early, the harshness of the winter months is eased.  However, if the winter is long and cold, the amount of the fat reserves becomes a moot point. For example, if we still have snow on the ground, and we’re getting storms in late March and early April, the elk and deer will be suffering. Winter range or wintering habitat is crucial in those situations because it will provide those critters with additional staying power, by providing cover and proper browse. Really, when it comes down to wildlife management, habitat is the crucial component to health of all wild animals. Without it, we and the critters have nothing, and we sure aren’t making any more of it!  

Winter to a predator is season of abundant food and full bellies... I guess that makes me a predator! Snow and the concentration of animals provides an easy living for wolves, bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions and those with carnassial teeth and sharp claws. Of course, we have to exclude the bears. This brings up one of the most interesting winter survival techniques, hibernation.

Contrary to popular belief, bears don’t actually hibernate; they have their own metabolic mechanisms to get through the snow and cold. A true hibernating animal lowers their body temperature to just a few degrees above freezing and drastically decreases their breathing rate. A bear’s body goes through several changes once it enters “hibernation”. Its heartbeat drops from fifty-five beats per minute to ten beats per minute, and the bear’s body temperature will drop from five to nine degrees below normal. While asleep, the bear uses the stored energy it accumulated as fat to survive but at a much reduced rate from a non-hibernating bear. During this deep sleep, a bear will not eat, drink or defecate for 6 to 7 months. Incredible!

We all need to keep the critters in mind when recreating this winter. Whether you are a snowmobiler, on snowshoes, or in a vehicle, please relax and let the critters have a second to do their thing. When we startle the elk and moose and make them run, they are burning those precious fat reserves that may make the difference between surviving until spring or not.

A few reminders for sportsmen in the new year. Please complete your harvest reports; they are an important component to our planning processes for the next year. Also don’t forget to purchase a 2011 license and appropriate permits before you head the door, especially for you waterfowl hunters and ice fisherman. We have been having a stellar waterfowl season, so get out there and enjoy it before the season ends on January 14. 

Also, the 2011-2012 fishing regulations are out and, in a bow to user feedback, the number of exceptions were reduced by a third. You can get a copy online here.

Leave No Child Inside

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Author info

Matt Haag Matt Haag is an Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer.

Tagged as:

ungulates, bears, waterfowl, harvest reports, muzzleloader, Pineapple Express, hibernation, fishing regulations

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